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Research on Women's Health Issues Informs Treatment Choices

Articles From the Agency for Healthcare and Quality (AHRQ)
by Dr. Carolyn Clancy, Director

September 6, 2011

As individuals, we want choices that reflect who we are and what's right for our situation. Getting the right health care is no different.

Until recently, information that showed which treatments work best for certain groups of patients, especially women, was hard to find.

Now women's health research is a growing field. The Women's Health Initiative (WHI), a long-term study launched by the late National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Bernadine Healy, MD, has provided important information on preventing and treating heart disease, breast and colorectal cancers, and osteoporosis in women aged 50 to 79.

The WHI and the Office of Research on Women's Health, led for two decades by Vivian Pinn, MD, helped to ensure that women are fairly represented in NIH-sponsored studies. Before the WHI began, very few studies focusing solely on women had been conducted.

Today, far more research is helping to identify which groups of patients will benefit from which kind of treatment. My Agency, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), sponsors patient-centered outcomes research that asks just that question. The goal of this research is to help you make better, more informed treatment choices.

Several recent consumer guides developed from this research focus on conditions that affect women. Written in plain language, these guides can help you understand the benefits and potential risks of treatments for different conditions.

One such guide helps women talk to their doctor or nurse about medicines to reduce their risk of breast cancer. Two medicines can lower the risk for women who are at high risk but have not had breast cancer before.

However, both of these drugs have side effects, some of them serious. If you are at high risk for breast cancer or if you're unsure, talk to your doctor or nurse. They can help you decide whether a medicine to reduce the risk of breast cancer is a good choice.

Some questions included in this guide include:

  • Is my risk of breast cancer higher or lower than other women my age?
  • What if I don't want to start medicine at the age I am now? Can I start later?
  • Is my risk for blood clots higher than usual?
  • Can I do anything else to lower my risk for breast cancer?

Another very helpful guide examines how to manage pain from a broken hip. Both men and women are at risk, but women are twice as likely as men to suffer a broken hip by age 80. The guide describes why it is important to manage pain, outlines medicines that may help you, and provides risks and benefits on other ways to manage pain.

To help you make a decision on how to manage pain, the guide suggests key questions to ask, such as:

  • Which options do you think are best to manage my pain?
  • How quickly can I expect relief from my pain?
  • How long do you think I will need to manage my pain?
  • Are you concerned about the side effects from any of these options?

Other consumer guides from AHRQ that address women's health issues cover breast biopsy, osteoporosis treatments, gestational diabetes, and induced labor. They provide helpful background on health conditions. Some even include basic price information on medicines. Select for a complete list of patient and consumer guides.

A new consumer guide to help women over age 50 learn which screening tests, medicines and daily steps to follow to stay healthy is also available.

We have made remarkable progress in understanding how treatments affect different groups of patients. Make sure to use that information when you talk to your health care team about the right treatment for you.

I'm Dr. Carolyn Clancy, and that's my opinion on how to navigate the health care system.

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