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Child Psychiatrist /Adult Psychiatrist

When It Comes to Medicine, ‘Women Are Not Small Men’

Welcome everyone. I'm Dr. John White. I'm the chief medical officer at WebMD. Does your biologic sex impact your health? Does it have any play in how you're diagnosed, how you're treated in terms of what symptoms you have? Of course it does. We all know that. But that's not something that many people believed 5, 10 years ago, certainly not 20 years ago. And it was only because of leaders like my guest today, Phyllis Greenberger, who really championed the need for research on women's health. She has a new book out, which I love. It's called Sex Cells: the Fight to Overcome Bias and Discrimination in Women's Healthcare. Please welcome my very good friend, Phyllis Greenberger.

Thank you.

Phyllis. It's great to see you today.

It's great to see you as well.

Now, you and I have been talking about this for easily 2 decades.

At least.

And some people think, oh, of course it makes sense. Although I saw you disagreeing that not everyone still believes that. But what has been that journey? Why has it been so hard to make people understand, as you point out early on in your book, women are not smaller men?


I think the basic reason was that it was just believed that men and women were the same except for their reproductive organs. So minus the reproductive organs, whether it was a device, a diagnostic, or therapeutic, if it was used and successful on a male, that it would be successful on a female. We're really very far from understanding the differences, and there's still a lot of distrust and disbelief and ignorance about it. And so there's still a long way to go.

But you talk about that in the book, that there's still a long way to go. Why is that? What's the biggest obstacle? Is it just misinformation, lack of information? People don't understand the science? There's still resistance in some areas. Why is that?

I think it's misinformation, and I gave a presentation, I don't know how many years ago, at least 20 years ago, about the curriculum. And at the time, there was no women's health in the curriculum. It was health. So if it was on cardiovascular issues or on osteoporosis, it was sort of the basic. And at the time, there would maybe be one woman whose job was women's health, and she'd have an office, and otherwise there was nothing. And maybe they talked about breast cancer, who knows. But I spoke to someone just the other day, in view of all the attention that the book is getting now, whether that's changed, whether it's necessary and required. And she said it's not. So, it's not necessarily on the curriculum of all research and medical institutions, and even if women's health, quote unquote, is on the curriculum, it doesn't mean that they're really looking at sex differences. And the difference is obvious. I mean, gender is really, it's a social construct, but biological sex is how disease occurs and develops. And so if you're not looking, and because there's so little research now on sex differences that I don't even know, I mean, how much you could actually teach.

So what needs to change? This book is a manifesto in many ways in how we need to include women; we need to make research more inclusive of everyone. But we're not there yet. So what needs to change, Phyllis?

During this whole saga of trying to get people to listen to me and to the society, we really started out just looking at clinical trials and that, as you mentioned, I mean, there are issues in rural communities. There's travel issues for women and child care. There's a lot of disbelief or fear of clinical trials in some ethnicities. I do think, going to the future, that technology can help that. I mean, if people have broadband, which of course is also an issue in rural areas.

What could women do today? What should women listeners hear and then be doing? Should they be saying something to their doctor? Should they be asking specific questions? When they interact with the health care system, how can they make sure they're getting the best care that's appropriate for them when we know that sex cells matter?

Well, that's a good question. It depends on, frankly, if your doctor is aware of this, if he or she has learned anything about this in school, which, I had already said, we're not sure about that because research is still ongoing and there's so much we don't know. So I mean, you used to think, or I used to think, that you go to, you want a physician who's older and more experienced. But now I think you should be going to a physician who's younger and hopefully has learned about this, because the physicians that were educated years ago and have been practicing for 20, 30 years, I don't know how much they know about this, whether they're even aware of it.

Phyllis, you are a woman of action. You've lived in the DC area. You have championed legislative reforms, executive agendas. What do you want done now? What needs to be changed today? The curriculum is going to take time, but what else needs to change?

That's a good question. I mean, if curriculum is going to take a while and you can ask your doctor if he prescribes the medication, whether it's been tested on women, but then if it hasn't been tested on women, but it's the only thing that there is for your condition, I mean, so it's very difficult. The Biden administration, as you know, just allocated a hundred million dollars for women's health research.

What do you hope to accomplish with this book?

Well, what I'm hoping is that I spoke to someone at AMWA and I'm hoping – and AMWA is an association for women medical students. And I'm hoping that's the audience. The audience needs to be. I mean, obviously everybody that I know that's not a doctor that's read it, found it fascinating and didn't know a lot of the stuff that was in it. So I think it's an interesting book anyway, and I think women should be aware of it. But really I think it needs to be for medical students.

And to your credit, you built the Society for Women's Health Research into a powerful force in Washington under your tenure in really promoting the need for Office of Women's Health and Research in general. The book is entitled Sex Cells, the Fight to Overcome Bias and Discrimination in Women's Healthcare. Phyllis Greenberger, thank you so much for all that you've done for women's health, for women's research. We wouldn't be where we are today if it wasn't for you. So thanks.

Thank you very much, John. Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity.

This interview originally appeared on WebMD on May 23, 2024

Note: This article originally appeared on Medscape

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