Medical research community calls time on health gender bias


Australian medical research is in danger of becoming non-competitive on a global stage when it comes to sex and gender analysis, according to a consortium of leading universities and research institutions writing in the Medical Journal of Australia today.

Higher healthcare costs due to unnecessary tests and treatment, and poorer quality of care are other unwelcome consequences of failing to account for differences in the way men and women experience common diseases and respond to therapies.

Dr Cheryl Carcel, Clinical Research Fellow at The George Institute for Global Health, said that while growing numbers of countries have introduced policies and practices which require the integration of sex and gender analyses in competitive research grants and/or publications in journals, few equivalent policies or practices exist here.

“While all Australian Government departments and agencies were required to align their business practices with guidelines on the recognition of sex and gender by 1 July 2016, we found that eight of Australia’s top ten research funding agencies and four of our top ten journals still did not have policies on the collection, analysis and reporting of sex- and gender-specific health data,” she said.

“Australian medical research has fallen behind North America and Europe in recognising sex and gender as a key determinant of health, and its importance for health research and improved health outcomes.”

“Failure to keep pace with the rest of the world will see Australia become increasingly less competitive when applying for funding from international bodies and reduce international partnership opportunities with overseas organisations,” Dr Carcel added.

Head of Public Health and Medical Director at Bupa Australia Dr Zoe Wainer said that across a broad-range of health areas, data have been collected from men and generalised to women, but a growing body of research shows that this approach was no longer appropriate.

“We know that differences exist between men and women for conditions that cause the greatest health burden in Australia and globally including cancer, cardiometabolic disease, mental illness and substance use, and dementia.”

“While Australian researchers are at the forefront of expanding the global knowledge base on sex and gender differences in health, we clearly need to do better in translating that into practice,” she said.

Amongst the paper’s authors are representatives of leading educational institutions, including UNSW, University of Sydney, University of Melbourne, Monash University, University of Queensland, Macquarie University and La Trobe University as well as the Australian Human Rights Commission and The National Heart Foundation.

Dr Wainer added that it was time for stakeholders across the board to ensure that health research and the medical profession that relies on it reflects current evidence to deliver the best health outcomes and most efficient care for Australians.

“We’re calling on universities and other training institutions, learned academies and professional societies, governments, medical and health research funders, peer-reviewed journals and industry to address this gap in medical research and ensure that Australian science continues to be world leading,” said Dr Wainer.

Dr Zoe Wainer, Bupa Australia Head of Public Health
This is not simply a women’s or men’s health issue, but an issue for all Australians.
Dr Zoe Wainer, Bupa Australia Head of Public Health