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Transforming Medical Research and Practice

September 17, 2019
by Rick Harrison

Sometimes it takes everyone paddling in the same direction to steer a boat out of trouble. Sometimes, with a huge ship, it takes a long time to make a turn. And sometimes, what we need to do is rebuild parts of the ship altogether.

This is the work — a transformation of medical research and practice — we are doing at Women’s Health Research at Yale.

Even as our center has been at the forefront of this transformation for 20 years, evidence that we have reached a critical moment continues to mount. More and more, our partners in the scientific community are deciding to embrace the fundamental change required to ensure women and men have equal footing in their health care.

Luckily, we don’t have to start from scratch when it comes to making sure that all aspects of biomedical research and practice study women and the influence of sex and gender on health. Our institutions have made some significant progress. But we do need to look at this issue as a systemic one, and we still have much more to do so that everyone benefits.

One aspect of systemic change involves creating an inclusive and diverse environment at institutions of medical education, research, and practice. This means ending sexual and gender harassment and removing obstacles to the advancement of women. It means recognizing and overcoming implicit biases against the capacity of women and racial and ethnic minorities. And it means ensuring diverse voices because the result is more creative and effective solutions to real-world health problems.

Locally, WHRY works with Yale School of Medicine’s Committee on the Status of Women in Medicine (SWIM) and the Minority Organization for Retention and Expansion (MORE) to construct a more diverse and welcoming environment. It is a message that has begun to resonate across the country.

For example, in the latest step toward the goal of diversity and female empowerment spurred by the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Research on Women’s Health, NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., in June called for an end to the practice of all-male speaking panels at scientific meetings and conferences at the NIH and elsewhere.

“The diversity of bright and talented minds engaged in biomedical research has come a long way — and our public engagements need to catch up,” Collins said in a statement declaring his intention to decline invitations to speak on so-called “manels, a commitment echoed by the editors of The Lancet journals in August. “Breaking up the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) bias that is preventing women and other groups underrepresented in science from achieving their rightful place in scientific leadership must begin at the top.”

In addition, for the first time in the NIH’s history, 10 of its 27 institutes and centers are now led by women.

Along these lines and also in June, the American Medical Association elected Atlanta psychiatrist Dr. Patrice Harris as its 174th president, the first African American woman to lead the group in its 145-year history. The AMA’s top three elected leaders were all female physicians.

Finally, The National Academy of Sciences, a 156-year-old private nonprofit group of the country's leading researchers, elected new members in April, 40 percent of whom are women — the most ever elected in a single year.

These developments reflect the change that WHRY has been implementing and advocating for 20 years and counting. Together, the center and its partners are rebuilding the ship and sailing it toward a happier and healthier future for everyone.

Submitted by Rick Harrison on September 13, 2019