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Image: Masha ManApov

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States, yet studies show that when a woman with a heart problem visits a medical provider, she is far more likely to have her symptoms attributed to stress or a psychological issue than a man with the same problem, who may instead be diagnosed with a physical or neurological condition. When women present symptoms of a heart attack, they’re often not transported by emergency medical services to the hospital as quickly as men are. In addition, only a third of cardiac research subjects are female, so heart disease in women is less understood. The same is true in other areas of research and treatment.

Why do these disparities in health care exist, and what can we do about them? That’s what the Coalition for Women’s Health Equity, launched in April by Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, is taking on.

Hadassah is spearheading a coalition of more than a dozen other organizations, including the American Heart Association, the Black Women’s Health Imperative, and Jewish Women International. In May, the newly formed group hosted a congressional briefing in Washington, DC, to address the research and provide legislative recommendations. “This is not a partisan issue or even a gender issue,” says Hadassah National President Ellen Hershkin. “Disparities in women’s health, which result in misdiagnosis and compromised care, impact any person with a mother, a daughter, a wife, a sister, or a female friend.”

Both human and animal studies disproportionately focus on male subjects, despite the fact that women don’t necessarily react the same way to drugs and medical devices as men do. This can result in women receiving ineffective or even harmful treatments.

It’s an issue that hits home for Susan Adler, president of the Seattle chapter of Hadassah. She was a junior in college when her mother began having stomach pains and was told she needed a hysterectomy. After the operation, the pain continued — which her gynecologist said was because of getting up too soon after surgery, having a weak pain threshold, and being a nervous person. When Adler took her mom to another doctor for a second opinion, they discovered that she had colon cancer that had spread to her liver. “How much progress we’ve made since the ’70s, I really question,” Adler says. She plans to host a salon event locally in the coming months to discuss these issues and the work of the Coalition for Women’s Health Equity.

“Access to safe, affordable, and equitable health care is crucial for every woman,” Lori Weinstein, CEO of Jewish Women International, says. “Yet for too long, medicine has lagged behind in researching, identifying, and treating women’s health concerns, from reproductive care to medical responses to domestic violence, and more. The time for change is now.” 

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