Last night we celebrated the 33rd annual Society for Women’s Health Research (SWHR) awards dinner and I came away so inspired. This powerhouse of an organization is a big reason why we have offices on women’s health in the major federal agencies and why so many more women are included in clinical trials than they have been in the past. SWHR’s work continues today to improve women’s inclusion in research, access to treatments, and equity for all women. I am honored to support that work in my role as the organization’s board chair.
Dr. Julie Gerberding, the current head of the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH) and first woman to lead the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), captured what is at stake in her keynote address with a story about her own family. Dr. Gerberding recently hosted a surprise party to celebrate her mother’s 90th birthday. As an independent, active woman, her mother is the picture of aging well. In contrast, Dr. Gerberding recently attended her cousin’s funeral following her difficult battle with ovarian cancer. In her remarks, she emphasized that we need research to help prevent unacceptable outcomes like her cousin’s but also to improve our understanding of women’s health and wellness as they age so more women can reach their 90th birthday in good health.
To get there, Dr. Gerberding emphasized the need for partnership. In her role at the FNIH, she is instrumental in enabling public-private partnerships. But she also highlighted the importance of, as she calls them, “n of one” women – individuals who make a big difference through their hard work and ideas. We honored several such women with awards last night:
- Dr. Kaveeta Vasisht, the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) associate commissioner for women’s health and head of the Office of Women’s Health. She has led work to raise awareness of diseases that disproportionately affect women and how health conditions can affect women differently.
- Keli Walbert, EVP and Chief Marketing Officer, accepted on behalf of Horizon Therapeutics, honored for the organization’s innovation and compassionate support for women’s eye health and autoimmune diseases.
- Dr. Pauline Maki, a leading researcher on women, cognition, dementia, and menopause. She is the Senior Director of Research at the University of Illinois Chicago Center for Research on Women and Gender.
Achieving the advances we need so that more women can reach their 90th birthday in good health is a daunting challenge but Dr. Maki made a point in her remarks that stuck with me. In diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease one common exercise is to ask patients to review and recall a list of groceries. Dr. Maki received knowing chuckles from the audience as she described how her research showed inherent bias in this task; women overperformed in remembering grocery lists – leading to false negative results – and men, on average, underperformed – leading to false positive results. In the grand scheme of medicine this is a small example but when it comes to individual lives it can make a world of difference to account for sex differences in research.
We need to shine light on our blind spots and raise up women and champions for women throughout the health research and care continuum. The challenge is great but with powerhouse organizations and “n of one” champions we’ll continue to make progress.
Gretta Stone presenting the Health Industry Visionary Award to Horizon Therapeutics at the SWHR Gala. Ms. Keli Walbert, Chief Marketing Officer accepting the award on behalf of Horizon.