Women's Health Getting NIH Attention

Over the past decade, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has sharply increased its focus on women's health issues. The General Accounting Office (GAO) concludes that record numbers of women are being included in research projects and there's been a steep increase in funding for research on diseases that disproportionately afflict women. But NIH critics point out that too many researchers still aren't reporting whether men and women respond differently to treatments.

Ten years ago, the GAO issued a scathing report rebuking NIH for failing to include women in research projects. That, coupled with anger over a study on the benefits of aspirin for preventing stroke that included only men, spurred NIH to require that all its grantees include women and minorities in all appropriate clinical research.

The GAO examined NIH's record again in a report earlier this month. Now, women constitute 62% of subjects in studies conducted by outside researchers, and 74% of subjects in Phase III trials, the last stage of testing before a treatment becomes widely available. When the GAO excluded studies that are sex specific, such as research on ovarian or prostate cancer, more than half of the remaining research subjects were women. Funding for research on women's health grew steadily between 1993 and 1999, as well. For instance, research expenditures grew 78% for osteoarthritis, 59% for breast cancer, and 73% for depression and mood disorders (which afflict women more commonly than men), compared to a 29% rise for NIH's overall budget.

However, as the GAO report and a study in the June issue of the Journal of Women's Health & Gender-Based Medicine point out, most recent publications from NIH-supported clinical research projects don't include a sex analysis of the data, even though NIH guidelines require researchers to design their studies so that they have enough subjects to perform a valid sex analysis. Such analyses are necessary, Phyllis Greenberger of the Society for Women's Health Research in Washington, D.C., points out, because women respond differently to some drugs, carry a higher risk of some diseases, and can suffer symptoms that are different from those of men.