There's no question that medical research saves lives. But while patients are of every gender and race, medical research has predominantly studied white men and male animals. Women and people of color are both underrepresented as participants in research studies, which can lead to large disparities in patient outcomes for common diseases.
Jamie Mitchell is an assistant professor of social work at the University of Michigan, an investigator with the Michigan Center for Urban African American Aging Research, and co-director of the Healthier Black Elders Center in Detroit. She said a patient’s race, ethnicity, and culture can all impact the outcomes of behavioral and basic science research. But, she added, it's a relatively modern idea that diversity in research samples is important, which leaves major gaps in our medical knowledge.
Jill Becker is the chair of the Biopsychology Area at the University of Michigan’s School of Psychology. She has studied health disparities in men and women since the 1970s. Becker says that in psychological studies, 70 to 90% of mice studied are male. In anxiety and depression research, 90% of animal subjects are male. That's despite the fact that women are more likely to be diagnosed with those mental illnesses, said Becker.
Cardiovascular disease is another area of health research that was largely built on data from male research participants.
"And yet, now we know that it's the number one killer of women," said Becker. "And the symptoms are different for men and women."
That classic symbol of a heart attack—clutching at your chest—doesn't necessarily reflect how women experience the symptoms of a heart attack. According to the Mayo Clinic, women are more likely to have heart attack symptoms unrelated to chest pain. Those can include discomfort in the neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back, or abdominal areas.
The lack of racial diversity in research studies also has a big impact on patient outcomes. For instance, Mitchell said, prostate cancer is most prevalent in men over the age of 65. But research has found a higher prevalence for black men in their 50s and 60s, as well as a higher mortality rate. Mitchell said that these differences should tell doctors to focus on early prostate cancer detection for black men. Instead, she said, “all of our current recommendations are set to white men.”
Mitchell also studies doctor-patient communication. She said the most important question in an appointment is always, “Is this treatment going to work for me?” But the lack of data on how diseases and treatment differ based on race and gender leaves health professionals without a good answer to that question.
“We don’t have a lot of confidence to be able to tell patients, yes we’ve actually tested this Alzheimer's intervention, this depression intervention, with people who look like you, who may have a similar background and upbringing as you, who may have faced some of the same stressors— such as discrimination— as you,” explained Mitchell.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Catherine Nouhan.