Closing the gap on medical research for women

Who: The Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation, with ZGM for strategy, creative and media.

What: #RefocusTheResearch, a launch campaign for the Alberta Women’s Health Foundation (AWHF) and its mandate to support women’s health research—which has traditionally been underfunded, with most research focused on men. It’s another harmful dimension to long-standing, systemic inequality between the sexes.

When & Where: The campaign launched for International Women’s Day and will run for three months online and social, with out-of-home and some PR and influencer outreach.

Why: For too long, medical research has concentrated on men, essentially ignoring the fundamental physiological differences between the sexes. According to AWHF, less than 8% of national funding goes to women’s health research.

These funding and focus gaps have serious consequences. “The gap has led to misdiagnoses because, in the medical system, women are often treated as ‘smaller men’,” said Sharlene Rutherford, president and CEO of the Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation, in a release.

For example, heart attack symptoms are often different for men and women, and each year 300 women in Alberta are sent home from the ER only to be readmitted for a heart attack.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that we die because of this inequity in women’s health research,” said Jill Scheyk account director at ZGM.

Aside from raising awareness about the problem, the specific goal of the AWHF is to fund 140 researchers at the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute whose research focuses on women’s health.

How: The agency was given a fairly open brief to launch AWHF. “They really gave us permission to play, and to be provocative and said we can be overtly feminist,” said Scheyk. “It was really great to have that kind of creative freedom.”

The core message of the campaign is the importance of shifting focus from women’s appearance to women’s health. Three different executions use striking visuals that peel away part of the woman’s body (face, back and upper chest/throat) to show the complex physiology within. Social ads include copy like: “Billions are spent on the outside of our bodies. It’s time to refocus the research on the inside.”

“We wanted to create something that was basically styled like a skincare ad,” said Scheyk. “We spend billions on research and development of things like skincare, makeup, and cosmetic procedures—anything to make ourselves look prettier and healthier. But really what we should be focusing on is the inside. Because this complete underfunding of women’s health research can really affect how healthy you actually are.”

Numbers on the gap: According to the AWHF:

  • Most artificial hearts are made in a size that’s too big for many women;
  • Health Canada issued the first guidelines to include women in clinical trials less than 30 years ago;
  • Only 9% of medications have been tested for safety in pregnant women;
  • On average, it takes seven years for a woman to get an endometriosis diagnosis, because most medical professionals don’t know enough about it;
  • 35% more women die of strokes than men, yet only 35% of clinical trial subjects in cardiovascular research are women.

About three-quarters of all adverse drug reactions happen in women, largely because medications haven’t been tested on women, said Scheyk. And 70% of patients with unexplained symptoms are women, because research is either non-existent, underfunded or focuses on men.

“Something is wrong in a world where you might have a choice between 10,000 different lipstick shades, but if you go to the ER with a heart attack, they’re not going to know what’s happening to you,” said Scheyk. “That is a serious problem.”

And we quote: “We are playing catch-up when it comes to women’s health research,” said Dr. Sandra Davidge, executive director of the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute. “There is still so much to learn about ovarian cancer, heart disease, mental health issues and numerous chronic conditions that impact women.”

David Brown