McKinsey: ‘Women’s Healthcare Neglected for Decades'

Lucy Pérez, an Affiliated Leader of the McKinsey Health Institute, on why science and common misconceptions affect the quality of women's healthcare

McKinsey research dispels many of the myths that surround women’s health, and it also suggests ways to significantly improve outcomes, both for women’s health and the economy.

McKinsey points out that because it has only been since the 1990s that women participated in clinical trials at scale the research on women’s health is lacking. 

Lucy Pérez is an Affiliated Leader of the McKinsey Health Institute (MHI) and a senior partner in the Boston office. Roberta Fusaro is an editorial director in the Boston office, and Lucia Rahilly is the global editorial director of McKinsey Global Publishing and is based in the New York office.

Perez was recently interviewed about problems and solutions around women’s health as part of a series of McKinsey healthcare podcasts. The following is an edited extract.

Common myths about women’s health?

The first one is the myth of how we define women’s health. It’s not just sexual and reproductive health. The vast majority of women’s health burden is associated with conditions that are not unique to women.

Another myth is because women live longer, they are therefore healthier. But what our research shows is that even though women live longer, they spend 25% more time, on average, in poor health than men do.

That the health gap happens primarily during the later years in life is another myth. In fact, what we’ve found is the majority of this health gap happens during women’s prime working years. 

By not addressing the health gap during this time period, there is a significant economic impact.

How much investment is there in women’s health?

The investment in women’s health is very limited. One of the analyses we did was to look at the spend in research and development dollars on assets in clinical development. This is a way of understanding the next generation of medicines.

We found that less than 5% of research and development spending is going toward women’s health. Half of that is connected to oncology. But when you look at any other conditions, like endometriosis, the total R&D spend is less than 2%.

Conditions like endometriosis tend to affect one in ten women. But the pipeline of assets in development is in the single digits. And yet there are other conditions that are equally prevalent, like diabetes, and there are more than 300 assets in development. That shines a light on what a significant gap there is.

Women’s health areas with the best ROI?

What has surprised me the most in doing this research is that the average time to diagnosis for endometriosis is a scary number. I was having a conversation with a group of women to see how long it took them to get diagnosed – it ranged from ten to 35 years.

That is just unacceptable. There are young girls who are being told, “You’re making this up to not go to school.” No, they are suffering. This is happening in the high school years, and it’s happening in the workplace. So endometriosis is the one that’s very near and dear to my heart because there is a long tale of suffering and lack of acknowledgment.

I’m gratified to see the increasing attention that is happening in the cardiovascular space. And I think we’ll see much more of that also in other conditions like autoimmune disorders.

How can we close the gender healthcare gap?

This is not just about those who are in the healthcare space. Everyone has a role to play. For example, employers should ask themselves, “What business policies are we putting in place to support women’s health?” and “How do we think about the benefits we’re deploying to support women going through menopause?” That’s just one way employers can think about their own role in closing the women’s health gap.

Hand in hand with all this is how resources are being deployed and allocated. How are we investing as individuals and as organisations? How are we making sure that we are supporting the collection of the right data and the development of new tools and solutions that can help drive those better health outcomes? Because everyone wins when women have better health.

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