Prioritizing Women’s Health

Four women sitting at a table talking and laughing.

NIH has a longstanding commitment to studying health conditions unique to women, such as menstruation and pregnancy, as well as conditions that affect women differently, such as heart disease and diabetes. I am pleased to see renewed focus on the importance of this work through the new White House Initiative on Women’s Health Research.

Within NIH, NICHD leads research focused on women’s health “below the belt,” which includes addressing a spectrum of gynecological and reproductive health issues. We urgently need further advances in these areas. For example, endometriosis is one of the most common gynecological diseases, affecting an estimated 10% of women in the United States. It often takes years to diagnose, and available treatments are not effective for everyone.

As I discussed in detail in my December 2023 blog post, NICHD is accelerating efforts to definitively diagnose, prevent, and treat endometriosis. An NICHD-funded study published this March found that fenoprofen, an FDA-approved nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug often prescribed for arthritis, alleviated pain and inflammation in a rodent model of endometriosis. If future studies confirm these findings, fenoprofen could be prescribed more frequently for endometriosis pain. To further address the need for new treatments and better diagnostics, NICHD recently launched the Advancing Cures and Therapies and ending ENDOmetriosis diagnostic delays (ACT ENDO) initiative. In the coming months, we will provide additional information about research funding opportunities available through this initiative.

Stigma and embarrassment also contribute to missed or inadequate treatment for pelvic floor disorders, a group of conditions in which the muscles or tissues of the pelvic floor weaken or are injured. NICHD’s Pelvic Floor Disorders Network seeks to inform health care providers about diagnosis, care, and treatment of women with pelvic floor disorders. The network conducts studies to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of surgical and nonsurgical interventions and to assess outcomes such as quality of life and sexual function.

These efforts represent only a fraction of the broad spectrum of women’s health research that NICHD supports, which includes conditions such as infertility, uterine fibroids, and polycystic ovary syndrome. Research is essential to identifying health care solutions that are responsive to women’s lives and living conditions. I often say that we must protect women through research rather than from research. An NICHD-led working group is helping put this into practice by monitoring the implementation of recommendations for improving knowledge and research on safe and effective therapeutics for pregnant and lactating people.

NICHD also views menstruation as a “fifth vital sign” reflective of a person’s overall health and encourages investigators to include menstrual status in their research projects. Because many factors, from diseases and infections to stress and medications, can affect the menstrual cycle, irregularities may indicate a problem. NICHD played a lead role in understanding the effects of COVID-19 vaccination on the menstrual cycle following anecdotal reports of post-vaccination cycle changes.

As we prepare to observe National Women’s Health Week beginning on May 12, I reflect on my hope for a society that is more comfortable talking about conditions that affect women’s health. By openly discussing these issues, we can reduce stigma and more effectively translate research findings into action to improve health outcomes.

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