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When it comes to health, men and women should not be treated equal

In a world rightfully striving for gender equality, there should be one exception: health

For the majority of health conditions – from diabetes to pulmonary disease – clinical evidence tells us that there is a biological difference in the way that males and females respond. This difference could be in the way that medications are metabolized, how therapies or treatments are experienced, or in the way specific symptoms present.

Each year, approximately 790,000 Americans suffer from at least one heart attack. The most widely reported symptoms include chest tightness, cold sweats or pain in one or both arms. 

While women may certainly experience these signs, some do not. In fact, due to their non-descript symptoms -- extreme fatigue, indigestion or shortness of breath -- some women have difficulty telling whether it is their heart or gastrointestinal system that is causing their symptoms. 

So, why then – if men and women can experience such varying symptoms for the same condition -  do most health care providers follow the same exact treatment plan for both?

Health and health care are not one-size-fits-all. And, more importantly, women are not simply smaller versions of men.

National Women’s Health Week is a reminder for women to make their health a priority, and build positive health habits for life.

Learn more about health care tips and women’s health myths from experts at the OHSU Center for Women’s Health

However, for most of medical history, this assumption held true and meant that new medicines and treatments were often only tested on men. Only in the past few decades has medical research started to include and consider women. 

This has created a positive paradigm shift in treating women, and men, differently in a health care setting to ensure the best medical outcomes. For instance, researchers at Stanford University are considering the different ways that men and women are impacted by post-traumatic stress disorder, while a team at Texas Tech University is working to uncover sex differences in recovery time from procedures for joint conditions. And, at OHSU, our experts are dedicated to learning how women are impacted differently by conditions such as Parkinson’sAlzheimer’s and heart disease.

Yet, there is still so much more to understand in regards to the biological differences between sexes. 

While not everyone holds a medical or scientific degree, we can all help to instill the notion that women are different unless research proves otherwise.

The next time a health care provider prescribes a new medication or recommends a specific therapy, ask the question: would you recommend this same treatment and dosage to a man?
If the answer is “yes,” dig deeper: Has sex, gender, size, age and lifestyle been taken into consideration?

The goal is not to discredit the incredible medical advancements and achievements we have today, and it’s not to draw a line in the sand between sexes. It’s to advance the understanding and consideration of biological differences to ensure the safest and most effective treatment for all.

Michelle Berlin, M.D., M.P.H., is vice chair of public health and faculty affairs, professor  of obstetrics and gynecology in the OHSU School of Medicine, and professor of public health and preventive medicine in the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health. Berlin also directs the OHSU Center of Women’s Health, an innovative health care setting dedicated to understanding and addressing the unique health problems that women face.

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