Opinion: Women’s health research deserves equal funding

Opinion: Women’s health research deserves equal funding

Article content

New evidence from Alberta Women’s Health Foundation (AWHF) shows that despite being 51 per cent of the population, women’s health research in Alberta receives only 3.4 per cent of total funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

Advertisement 2

Article content

Regrettably, this news will not shock everyone. As explored in our recently published Finding the Fractures report, granting for research in women’s health has been sidelined for decades.

Many of us could guess that women make up almost exactly half of the population, which is accurate. Logically, one would assume that women’s health research also receives roughly half of the funding, correct? Painfully wrong. Women’s health research receives no more than eight per cent of medical research funding in Canada. While we founded the AWHF knowing this, we have since made a more dramatic discovery — here in Alberta, only 3.4 per cent of funding goes to women’s health. It’s at least twice as bad as we thought. In fact, that ratio would need to increase fifteen-fold to get us to parity.

Advertisement 3

Article content

But we must ask ourselves, how did this happen?

Traditionally, medical research has assumed that women’s bodies do not differ substantially from men’s, despite unique biology, physiology, and social factors influencing women’s health (many that may seem obvious). The impacts and cracks caused by this thinking have solidified over time and, as a result, we have considerable gaps in our understanding of women’s health needs, risks, disease manifestation, and treatment responses.

In Alberta, for example, women face a 20-per-cent higher risk than men of dying or having heart failure during the first five years following a heart attack, in part due to a lack of awareness of the differing presentations of symptoms between men and women. Women are also less likely to receive the needed care, from obtaining a diagnostic angiogram, seeing a heart specialist, or being prescribed medications. Yes sir, that does sound like heart complications. No ma’am, it must be something else.

Advertisement 4

Article content

Let’s consider the widespread impact of two “orphaned” women’s health conditions in particular — endometriosis and fibroids —which greatly impact women’s health. Despite the ubiquity of these two conditions and their severity, there is little investment in understanding these conditions or why it can take three to five years for a woman to be diagnosed. In fact, the first study in Canada for endometriosis only began in 2019.

Looking deeper at the research funding data from the CIHR, not only does women’s health research receive disproportionate funding, but evidence has also shown that women — who make up the majority of women’s health researchers — receive funding less often, for lower amounts, and for shorter terms than their male counterparts

Advertisement 5

Article content

Despite these biases, women’s health researchers are making substantial impacts.

It takes 17 years for health research to reach the patients who need it most. AWHF researchers are dialled in on new approaches that focus on putting research into clinical practice much faster.

Dr. Jane Schulz, professor of obstetrics and gynaecology with the University of Alberta, leapfrogged the long research-to-policy timeframes by using data generated by her research team to actively advocate for a specialized perineal care clinic. As a result, the newly established clinic at Lois Hole Hospital for Women now serves approximately 12,000 patients each year across Canada. This unique, comprehensive and multi-disciplinary model of urogynecological care has since been adopted in other clinics worldwide.

Advertisement 6

Article content

Thankfully, researchers can rely on funds from sources like the AWHF, which since 2009, as part of the Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation, has fundraised and invested $12.9 million in women’s health research through the Women’s and Children’s Health Research Institute (WCHRI). That equals over 50 per cent of the funds distributed to women’s health projects in Alberta by the CIHR.

Funding women’s health research is critical to improving health outcomes, establishing life-changing clinical models of care, creating innovative tools, reducing misdiagnoses, uncovering new treatments, and better understanding of disease. And finally treating women’s health with the respect it deserves.

The cascading effects research will have on the health of children, the elderly, community health, and the economy should not be understated. Health research spending deserves equality and dedicated women’s health research dollars are critical for us all.

Sharlene Rutherford is president and CEO of the Alberta Women’s Health Foundation.

Advertisement 1


Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.