Thirty years ago this week, the bill that became the National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act of 1993 — a game changer for research on women’s health — was introduced into the U.S. Senate by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). This landmark act has helped significantly improve women’s health in the United States and around the world.
This week would also have been the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade had it not been overturned last June, catapulting women’s health and health care into the spotlight and sparking national political debate about women’s reproductive rights.
2022 was marked by greater focus on health care transformation, sparked in part by the many harsh lessons taught by the Covid-19 pandemic. This included identifying shortcomings in women’s health care, including gender bias and health inequities, that have long prevented women from receiving the quality care they deserve.
Looking forward, I believe that 2023 may become a watershed year that will further move the needle on women’s health and health care. With women making up more than half of the U.S. population, it’s time for women’s health to be considered more than a niche market. Women’s health covers so much more than just reproductive health, but for too long it’s been looked at that way. The ability to make real progress hinges on health care leaders leaning in — to listen to women, to identify their challenges and address them in meaningful ways, and to invest in women and women entrepreneurs.
Here’s the shortlist of focus areas I feel deserve the greatest amount of attention this year to further the transformation of women’s health care and unlock the many valuable opportunities in doing that.
Broadening maternal and reproductive health care
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to reverse Roe v. Wade wasn’t just a historic and far-reaching decision: it also highlighted the country’s maternal mortality crisis. It’s a stark reality that the maternal mortality rate in the U.S. is more than three times higher than in 10 other high-income countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom, and Germany. Black women are nearly three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women are.
The majority of pregnancy-related deaths in the U.S. are preventable. In other words, there’s a lot of work to be done.
Having access to a regular doctor or place of care is essential to ensure good health outcomes for women. Yet more than 19 million women of reproductive age in the U.S. live in contraceptive deserts, and approximately 1.2 million of them live in counties without a single health center offering a full range of contraception options. While a recent ruling from the Food and Drug Administration allowing retail pharmacies to sell mifepristone will broaden access to medical abortion, some states have banned abortion entirely. Access to affordable contraception, family planning, and maternal health care are essential needs for women across the U.S.
Expanding access to mental health resources
Covid-19 generated a surge in mental health concerns that disproportionately affect women. According to CARE’s Rapid Gender Analysis, the pandemic’s mental health impact was three times bigger on women’s lives than on men’s, with women reporting higher rates of anxiety and depression. This makes sense, given that women generally faced greater stress and responsibilities during the pandemic, including adjusting to rapid school closures and homeschooling children while having to manage their own work and their family’s psychological responses to the evolving pandemic.
Even as the pandemic began to wind down in 2022, the country’s mental health crisis continued. According to the American Psychological Association’s 2022 Covid-19 Practitioner Impact Survey, demand for treatment remained high for trauma- and stressor-related disorders, as well as for substance use disorders. And nearly half of mental health care providers have been unable to meet the demand for treatment.
In 2023, I hope to see more solutions to tackle the variety of mental health challenges women face. As companies leverage technology to develop solutions, it’s become clear that partnering with and listening to mental health experts is what will lead to making patient safety a priority. Also needed: addressing the severe shortage of behavioral health providers, including expanding mental health services in the workplace and improving the integration of behavioral health into primary care.
Women deserve to age how they age. Yet there’s still plenty of stigma in the workplace around menopause and aging. Women often hit the peaks of their careers just as they begin to experience menopause, forcing them to manage a range of invisible and visible symptoms, including hot flashes, mood changes, and sleep issues. Many are embarrassed to express these signs at work due to fear of being “outed” as menopausal.
That fear is warranted. In a 2022 study exploring the stereotypes associated with menopause that was published in the Harvard Business Review, both full-time workers and college students considered a hypothetical coworker described as a “menopausal woman” to be less confident and less emotionally stable than one described as a “middle-aged woman.”
But there’s more to the story. The researchers also found an effective strategy to overcome this bias: When a woman said that her hot flashes were caused by menopause, she was seen as “more confident, stable, and leader-like” than when she claimed to be “just warm.”
Simply put, normalizing menopause at work by talking about it can help boost perceptions of competence and leadership potential. But this requires employers to build psychologically safe workplaces in which women feel comfortable to discuss issues and ask for the support they need without fear of discrimination or retribution.
Health care reimagined
Women make up 60% of America’s workforce. As consumers, they make more than 80% of health care decisions — researching, analyzing, and deciding on the best course of health care for themselves as well as for their partners, children, and aging parents. As someone who has worked hard to remove unnecessary barriers to health care throughout my career, I say it’s time to reimagine health care in a way that delivers what women truly need. I’m confident that we will see more progress in this direction in 2023, but achieving that goal requires addressing long-standing gender bias, prioritizing women’s health, and expanding equitable access to health care for all women, regardless of their race, income, class, or sexual orientation.
The result will ultimately be better outcomes for women: imagine decreasing the maternal mortality rate, broadening access to reproductive care options, reducing anxiety and depression, and normalizing menopause so women can live longer, healthier, and more fulfilling lives.
Michelle Carnahan is president of Thirty Madison, a family of specialized health care brands.
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