Sex differences in health awareness

A majority of American women always or frequently read the labels of their prescribed or over the counter medications to see if they might work differently in women, but few discuss this issue with their doctor or pharmacist, according to a new survey released by the Society for Women's Health Research, a Washington, D.C., based advocacy organization.

“Women are increasingly aware that medications can work differently or cause more side effects depending on whether you are a man or woman, but few women talk to their health care providers about this important issue,” said Phyllis Greenberger, MSW, president and CEO of the Society, which released the survey during National Women's Health Week on Sex Differences in Health Awareness Day.

“Doctors don't have all the answers and researchers have yet to identify and explain all sex differences affecting medical treatment,” Greenberger said, “but a dialogue with your care providers is important to ensure that you have all of the information possible and to push your doctors to think more carefully about your care in these terms.”

So what questions should women ask their health care providers about sex differences in medications?

“Ask your doctor or pharmacist if the drug has been studied in women and if there are any known differences in effectiveness or negative side effects that are more frequent in or unique to women,” Greenberger said. “Sometimes they won't have the answer. That doesn't necessarily mean you shouldn't take the medication, but do monitor your condition closely and report to them any unexpected side effects or developments, because women experience more problems with medications.”

In the survey, 58.1 percent of women said they “always” or “most of the time” read the labels of their medications to see if there are differences in safety and efficacy for women, but more women, 63.5 percent, “almost never” or “never” ask their doctors if their medications might work differently in them. About three-quarters (73.5 percent) “almost never” or “never” ask their pharmacist this question.

Almost half of women, 46.7 percent, believe a drug's effectiveness can vary between the sexes, compared to 37.5 percent who don't believe such differences exist. On the issue of side effects, 68.4 percent of women think they occur “about equally between women and men,” while 20.7 percent think they're more common in women. Less than three percent (2.6) think side effects occur more frequently in men.

“Awareness of sex differences is greater than ever, but many people still assume that the effects of medications are the same for everyone,” Greenberger said. “An increasing number of studies show that the safety and effectiveness of many widely used drugs vary depending on the sex of the user.”

Exactly why drugs affect women and men differently remains unclear. The varying rates at which women and men metabolize drugs may be involved. Anatomy also plays a role, as women have lower body weight, smaller organs, reduced blood flow and a higher proportion of fat than men. Women are at higher risk of adverse drug reactions than men in part because they are more likely to use multiple medications or dietary supplements simultaneously.

“Sex differences exist in many areas of health and a lot of questions remain unanswered,” Greenberger said. “That is why it's important to support increased funding for health research and encourage the analysis of research data for differences between women and men. As health consumers, we have to stay well informed, engaged with our care providers and active in reporting undesirable medication side effects and interactions.”

The survey of 1,516 U.S. women 18 and older was conducted by International Communications Research of Media, Pa., through a national telephone omnibus survey, April 4-17. The margin of error for the survey is plus or minus 2.52 percent.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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