The Truth About Women's Roles In Medical Research Trials

Healthcare is for everyone because, well, everyone gets sick at some point. Over the years, scientists have discovered that treatments work differently on people. However, this doesn't mean medicine has always treated everyone fairly.

For centuries, medical research ignored women's diseases because women weren't always included when studying illnesses. This led to some curious, if not downright dangerous, cures to women's health problems.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), women were often excluded from clinical research usually for two reasons: their biology is more complicated than men, and they had too many competing responsibilities to participate in studies as the primary caregivers for families.

Without the participation of women, doctors often cobbled together treatments that became harmful to their patients. Take, for example, giving birth. As The Week explained, a hundred years ago, doctors took the job from midwives who had more experience helping women. In a bid to sterilize everything, women's external genitals and thighs were shaved, scrubbed with hot water, and sprayed with Lysol. Yes, the cleaning product Lysol. And to help in delivery? Lard. Clearly, no one asked an actual woman how giving birth goes.

Because of the lack of understanding of women's health issues, they're usually ignored when they complain to doctors in what the BBC called a "pain bias." Women are more often given less effective painkillers, their symptoms dismissed, or given anti-anxiety medicine. And there was no worse case of this than hysteria.

Hysteria was doctors' go-to diagnosis

Hysteria was a blanket term for a variety of symptoms women often experienced. Popular in the 19th century, the diagnosis persisted until well into the 20th century. It was a disease that manifested only in women and caused them to go mad. If you complained of shortness of breath, anxiety, insomnia, fainting, vomiting, or pain, then congratulations, you have hysteria.

Doctors diagnosed hysteria because they didn't understand (or did not want to understand) what women were feeling. As The Guardian reported, doctors used to turn to hysteria because they had a limited view of women's health. And when women returned with the same symptoms, they were dismissed.

Women were often excluded from medical research trials because scientists believed their results could be inconsistent based on the menstrual cycle. When women are on their periods, hormones continually heighten feelings of pain and response to painkillers, said the BBC. So, most medical treatments were often formulated with men. Even in trials where medicines are tested on animals, it was the male of the species that were studied. This has led to the harmful effects of drugs.

Quartz pointed out women respond differently to ingredients. It wasn't until 2013 that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) admitted that the sleeping pill Ambien's active ingredient takes longer to affect women, leaving them more groggy in the morning. And eight of the 10 drugs removed by the FDA from 1997 until 2000 had harmful effects on women.

It's slowly changing

The lack of women participating in studies also delayed how medicine understood how women experienced symptoms, pointing to a larger issue. Recent studies have shown that heart attacks feel more like a bloated stomach for women than pain in the chest. Studies also failed to account for the difference in lifestyle and diet when figuring out what impacts the risk for disease between the sexes.

Women continued to be excluded from medical trials until the 1990s. After campaigning and research by the U.S. Public Health Service Task Force for Women's Health, the NIH and FDA mandated women's inclusion in clinical trials in 1993. However, it wasn't until 2016 that the inclusion of female animals became mandatory in drug testing.

Quartz noted that while medical research now includes women, they are still often underrepresented. This means that even though women make up a large chunk of sufferers for a specific health issue, like hepatitis, there aren't enough female participants in studies around it.

With women being excluded from medical research for so long, doctors have had to play catch up in how to treat them. A greater body of work around women may have been produced if it didn't take until the 21st century to finally make it a point to include females in clinical trials.