When I think about March and Women’s History Month, I remember the pioneers who challenged the status quo to defeat societal norms. These heroic individuals not only paved new roads for opportunity but changed our thinking altogether.
There are so many female forerunners who have reshaped politics and almost every industry, including medicine. There’s—of course—Vice President Kamala Harris, who is now inspiring young women that they could one day become president of the United States. Ruth Bader Ginsburg fought for justice at the highest levels. Florence Nightingale was the founder of modern nursing. And there was Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, who was the first female physician in the U.S.
Blackwell broke phenomenal ground in the mid-19th century for women and women’s health. Just before her death, a close friend told Blackwell that her treatment would have been much different if her doctor was a woman, inspiring Blackwell to drive change … change that is so evident today.
Against all odds, Blackwell pursued her desire, graduating first in her class from New York’s Geneva Medical College and becoming the first woman in America to receive a medical degree. She went on to help found the New York Infirmary for Women and Children— the first hospital in New York devoted to women’s health issues, which completely retargeted our mindset for women’s health.
Yet, it wasn’t until the 1960s that we finally understood and accepted that women are different than men in terms of their health. What seems so obvious was completely ignored or just misunderstood for centuries. And we’re at a similar crossroads today in advancing women’s health. We can’t relent on studying how various illnesses like heart disease and cancer impact gender differently. We need more leaders like Blackwell and so many who have followed in her footsteps, who can continue to lead this important endeavor to advance science and women’s health. Here’s what I suggest:
Make a commitment. As leaders within our respective organizations, we have an obligation to do what is right. That includes investing adequate resources in areas of need. At Northwell Health, we established the Katz Institute for Women’s Health years ago to better coordinate care for the women in our lives. We take an individualistic approach because each woman’s healthcare needs are unique, and we should empower them to make informed decisions on their health.
Maintain an open dialogue. Communication is key to all progress. One of the reasons it took so long to pay attention to women’s health is no one was willing to talk about it. The misconception that women and men were the same physiologically was based on superstition and falsities, and thanks to people willing to have the conversation and pursue the science, we are seeing progress.
Build upon successes. We’ve embraced breakthroughs like cervical testing, mammography and birth control—all milestones in advancing these efforts. But more can be done. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 13% of women 18 or older are in poor health. Why? We need to better understand this and respond with the right services.
Embrace culture change. Last October, there were 2.2 million fewer women in the workforce than the year prior. COVID-19 has disrupted jobs, childcare and daily life. As leaders, we need organizational change to alleviate the economic and logistical burdens on these families. It starts with culture. Finding solutions can go a long way in improving mental health for women to remain in their professions.
Identify the future of women’s health. Forward thinking is critical to this shift. Advancements in technology and research are discovering new opportunities for women. Take family planning for example. Societal norms for both men and women now seem to favor postponing childbirth past a woman’s reproductive prime to afford pursuing a career or a degree. New fertility programs, including paid surrogacy, which is now legal in New York, could provide solutions for women who want to delay childbirth or unfortunately cannot have children themselves.
This is not to say that we aren’t in a good place with women’s health. Progress has continued to accelerate over the years, but we need to continue to build on those advances.
Through the Katz Institute, we at Northwell are strengthening our commitment to women’s health, announcing this week a new campaign that seeks to continue our progress, challenge biases and change the standard of care for women. You too can join this movement and become a member of the Katz Women’s Circle, our community of women’s health advocates and champions.