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Taking Stock of Women’s Health in the US

Women’s health topics are at the forefront of the conversation about healthcare access and quality in the US. And with good reason. Dedicated practitioners and administrators may make the US health system among the best in the world but its benefits still fail to reach millions of women annually. The barriers and inefficiencies of the US health system affect women across their lifespans–including reproductive, family and primary health. But clinicians like physicians are in a unique position to amplify underserved voices and pursue change on healthcare’s frontline.

Key Topics in Women’s Health

Women are particularly vulnerable to rising costs, implicit biases from care providers and suffer from an overall lack of healthcare access.

Women Receive Less and Lower Quality Care

Implicit bias occurs when individuals make prejudicial judgments about others that impact their behavior. Structural racism in the US is, in part, fueled by collective implicit biases. Within the healthcare system, this phenomenon acts insidiously to undermine care for women, especially women of color. Practitioners make healthcare decisions based on these biases, frequently dismissing or underestimating women’s symptoms and self-reports.

Although issues in women’s health are a global challenge, millions of women are receiving inadequate care here in the US due to cost and inaccessibility. Those underserved by US healthcare are often women from minority populations.

Lack of access to quality care often starts with a lack of insurance. Private health insurance provided by full-time gainful employment is the predominant source of health insurance coverage in the US. But many women who are unemployed or underemployed lack coverage. Recent estimates put the total uninsured nationwide at close to 10%. Many of those are BIPOC. Other reports confirm these numbers, putting the total rate of uninsured non-Hispanic black Americans at over 10%. Hispanic Americans are particularly affected with an uninsured rate of over 25%. These numbers spike further for women of these ethnicities. Nearly 20% of non-Hispanic black women are uninsured, along with 37% of Hispanic women.

The Rural Medicine Crisis

Women in rural areas also face barriers to access. These include a smaller number of healthcare facilities per capita and long travel times to reach facilities, especially in cases of emergency. Rural areas have limited ambulance access and it is considered a major nationwide crisis.

Doctor shortages, while felt all over the country, are even more extreme in these areas. This crisis has deeply affected women’s care. These shortages acutely impact medical specialties like reproductive health more often. And even when it’s possible for women to access this care, doctors in these specialties can be difficult to find. If and when they find care, it can involve increased costs and longer waiting periods.

Health Issues Impacting Women

Women are also experiencing an increase in serious chronic and acute conditions in the US both overall in relation to their male counterparts. They are also suffering rising rates of preventable death from causes like stroke, heart disease and cancer. Women are also comprising a higher share of cases of osteoporosis, breast cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease.

They are also experiencing a higher share of diseases once predominately experienced by men, including diabetes and high blood pressure. Research has shown women of all backgrounds experience high rates of the mental health disorders like anxiety, depression and trauma-related disorders. Additionally, the gap between the rates of mental health diagnoses between men and women continues to widen. Adolescent girls, for instance, experience high rates of mood disorders.

Reproductive and Family Health

Primary and reproductive care in the US have made headlines in recent years. And not always for the right reasons. Some studies have documented maternal mortality and complication rates similar to those in much less wealthy countries.

US women experience high rates of mental health concerns, both due to mental health conditions and the compounding effects of comorbid chronic health conditions. The physical and psychological effects of these concerns can increase the stress of pregnancy and lead to worse outcomes for both mother and child.

Finding Solutions and Improving Women’s Care

Despite these challenges, there are a number of ways physicians and clinicians of all types can act to improve women’s care.

Here are some actionable objectives medical practices can quickly implement.

  • Making telehealth services available
  • Participating in continuing education on women’s health
  • Acknowledging any implicit biases and how they manifest in the healthcare system
  • Providing effective patient education