Women needed in medical research to prevent gender bias

More women are urgently needed as medical researchers to reverse a bias in clinical trials which often excludes female patients, a leading academic warns.

Medical research is still a men’s game, despite the fact almost half the country’s doctors are women, internationally renowned anaesthesia researcher Kate Leslie said.

This leads to male researchers failing to consider the need for more female patients into medical trials.

“If, for example, you are studying heart attacks, you need to recognise women present very differently with heart attacks than men,” Professor Leslie said.

“If a study is focused on heart attack patients who present with a crushing chest pain, then female patients could be left out of the study altogether because they generally have very different symptoms, like sweatiness, feeling unwell or shortness of breath.”

Drug use studies posed similar problems.

A trial might look at how well a drug works for a particular medical condition, she said. Yet while it may be effective for male participants if there were not enough females in the study there was no way of gauging if the drug worked for women.

Prof Leslie, an editor with the British Journal of Anaesthesia, said there were also notable differences in the way female investigators tended to conduct their trials, with women more aware of the need to reflect the experience of both sexes.

Addressing the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists’ Annual Scientific Meeting in Brisbane on Monday, Prof Leslie said female anaesthetists made up 40 per cent of the specialty, yet less than 30 per cent were involved in research.

Female anaesthetists were also far less likely to be called upon to peer review medical papers.

“This affects how much the work of a female investigator is supported and celebrated,” Prof Leslie said.

“The work of men tends to get more exposure in the media and the system is perpetuated on the editorial boards of journals which are dominated by men.”

While many medical journal editors were actively recruiting more female researchers, women’s family commitments and a lack of flexible working arrangements in the profession remained a major barrier.

“It’s exactly the same problem when we try recruiting more female patients for clinical research,” she said.

“We are underusing the resources we have got because women who trained for 16 years to get into the profession are not engaged as much as they want or should be.”

The Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists has facilitated AAP’s coverage of the 2024 meeting.


Deborah Cornwall
(Australian Associated Press)


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