UCSF Medical Center is set to open a new woman’s hospital next year, one that is is part of a growing trend toward research and health care geared specifically to women’s needs.
“Women are not just small men,” says Phyllis Greenberger, president and CEO of the Society for Women’s Health Research (SWHR) in Washington, DC, an organization that has advocated for gender-based treatment and research.
Women-only hospitals are hardly new in the U.S, but their focus has changed in the last couple of decades. Originally women’s hospitals, often known as lying-in hospitals, were opened for women who could not afford to have a midwife come to their home to deliver their baby.
The focus was on separating women, explained Nancy Milliken, M.D., director of UCSF’s National Center of Excellence. When injured soldiers began returning from World War I, many communities found they needed beds at the women’s hospitals and added floors and care of different kinds for men, and, ultimately, for women.
The last couple of decades, however, has seen increased advocacy for studies to look at gender differences in physiology and diseases and dedicated hospitals are now part of that effort—including research facilities as well as treatment ones.
Dr. Milliken says that by establishing the region’s first dedicated women’s hospital, UCSF is positioned to change the way care is delivered to women and their families. The campus, which will be located at Mission Bay, also will be home to the new UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital and the Bakar Cancer Hospital, both of which will integrate with the new woman’s hospital.
Researchers and advocates say there are still lags for optimal treatment for women on a number of fronts, including heart disease and cancer. The Society for Women’s Health Research issued a statement in early March calling on the House Energy and Commerce Committee to hold a hearing to examine the progress made by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on including more women and minorities in medical research.
In addition, SWHR called for greater analysis by the agencies into the ways that diseases and treatments affect women and men differently. “It is absolutely vital that we study these health disparities so that individuals get the care they need,” says Phyllis Greenberger.
On March 13th the Society and the American Medical Women’s Association hosted a “Women’s Day of Advocacy” in Washington, D.C. to bring advocates to meet with members of Congress to talk about issues affecting women’s health.
The two groups made several requests of the members of Congress they visited:
- Support Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif) and Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) in their effort to hold a hearing on the inclusion of women and minorities in health research
- Ensure that women are included in all phases of medical research and that sex differences are studied and evaluated at all levels
- Instruct federal health agencies to translate these sex differences from research bench to bedside for the benefit of both women and men, and make such information publically available
“The Society for Women’s Health Research has long advocated for more women in clinical trials because too many studies don’t include enough or even any women. We need to do away with the assumption that women are affected by diseases and treatments the same way as men,” said Martha Nolan, SWHR vice president of public policy.
“Better representation of women in clinical trials,” added Nolan, “would give us a greater understanding of the impact of chronic diseases on women and the need for earlier diagnosis and treatment plans tailored to women. Simply put, we need more women in clinical trials.”
The advocates are especially concerned about funding cuts. “Lack of funding is truly a critical issue for women’s health. With the current federal budget caps, it’s unlikely the Food and Drug Administration will get the financial support it needs without public outcry,” said Leslie Ritter, SWHR’s director of government affairs. “More funding would allow the FDA to better analyze sex-specific reporting of side effects and risk factors for all new drugs.”
There are dozens of women’s hospitals or women’s health centers that are part of major medical centers across the U.S. Some advocates question whether separating women from men is necessary in developing optimal care.
“There are hormonal, genetic, environmental and physiologic differences [between men and women] and these need to be taken into account when assessing a woman’s condition,” says Phyllis Greenberger. “Wherever that’s best done, that’s where it should be done.”