Today, more than ever, women’s health is in the spotlight. What progress is being made? What obstacles still exist? And what does the future hold for the health of women? Here, you’ll find responses from some of UPMC’s most knowledgeable, forward-thinking leaders in the realm of women’s health.
We know the health of an individual woman is important. But why does women’s health in general matter to society?
LESLIE C. DAVIS: Women have so many roles and responsibilities in our society. Beyond the traditional roles of mother, wife, and daughter, women are a significant part of the workforce. In their families, women are making important decisions impacting their family’s diet, health care choices, and finances. By improving and focusing on the health of women, we are in turn improving the health of the entire population.
DR. RICHARD BEIGI: In addition to being roughly half of the population, women are also the backbone and fabric of most societies. So women’s health is incredibly important for the society’s health as well.
DR. EDWARDS: Without healthy women, you don’t have healthy families. In terms of development, women are very important for their role biologically and sexually. But they also have a tremendous impact on defining where and how care is given for their children, parents, in-laws, and spouses. So if we don’t have engaged women, particularly as mothers and caregivers, then care is not optimally provided.
What are the biggest challenges facing the care of women and advancing their health?
DAVIS: Much of women’s health is focused on reproductive health. While that certainly is a component, women are so much more than that, and our approach to women’s health is so much more than that. One of the universal challenges I find is that women aren’t making their health as much of a priority as they should. We are often so focused on the needs of others that we fail to take proper care of ourselves in seeking preventive or routine care.
Women experience unique health care challenges that benefit from excellent diagnosis and treatment, backed by focused research. Several chronic conditions, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes are the leading causes of death for women. I think it is important that women make their own health a priority.
EDWARDS: Women with conditions that would lend themselves to prevention often forego preventive treatments because they’re too involved with making sure their families get proper health care. I also think women in minority or socially economically disadvantaged populations often don’t seek out health care because of resources, stigma, or fear of financial burden. That’s why it’s so important to have insurance options and financial support for underserved and socially disadvantaged and minority populations that may not have access to resources.
We’ve been partnering with UPMC Health Plan, the state Medicaid program, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to try to improve the infrastructure for supportive health care for women in the community. That includes studying health services and the impact of new technology that may be able to improve the plight of underserved populations, such as mobile device applications and internet-based initiatives, particularly for younger women and those with pregnancy complications. We are investing in technology across our health system to engage women in maintaining their own health.
BEIGI: We’ve made a lot of progress in the last few decades, but in terms of scientific investigation, we’re really just beginning to understand the differences between males and females. We need to better understand how those gender differences translate into health challenges or benefits. Most of the research up until about 20 years ago was almost exclusively done on males, and it doesn’t always translate directly over to females. Gender difference can drive a lot of scientific differences that can have major health implications for not only how we treat but also how we investigate and prevent disease. The progress has been dramatic, and we want that momentum to continue.
How is research playing a part in improving women’s health?
BEIGI: Research is uncovering gender-specific differences that we didn’t know were there. The more research you do, the more you learn. Those findings can help justify why it’s important to continue to prioritize these efforts. The research also has important policy implications for equity between men and women. It’s also helping to shape policy around women’s health and women’s health research.
DAVIS: Research is paramount to improving women’s health. Clearly men and women experience illness differently. Through research, we are focused on making discoveries and advancing knowledge in many areas, including breast cancer genomics and personalized therapies, reproductive biology, HIV immunization and prevention, fertility preservation, and clinical pelvic floor research. These lead to treatments that are truly life changing. The announcement of the UPMC Immune Transplant and Therapy Center is also a testament to the priority that UPMC places on research to make clinical advancements possible.
EDWARDS: Women’s health is one of the most progressive health lines within UPMC. We’re studying and adopting new measures for health care prevention using data analytics. Now we’re moving into artificial intelligence technology, working with innovative companies and individual products coming out of CMU and Pitt, where we can perform trials around analytics and patient engagement. We’re also very invested in bio-repository development. We now have bio-specimens to go with our outcome data. The hope is that we’ll be able to identify new predictive biomarkers that will lead to improved outcomes for women who are cared for by the UPMC Health Services line.
Is there more research being performed than in the past?
EDWARDS: Yes, but it’s been a long haul. The NIH had a female director in the 90’s, and she brought some initial attention to improving women’s health research. Just recently with the changes in health care economics, the importance of women’s health has really come to the forefront. There’s been a resurgence and expansion of women’s health investment and support. Hospitals now understand the importance of women’s health for their overall function. I think there’s a national trend, an increased interest in women’s health. Hopefully that goes with increased expenditures in women’s health, as well.
DAVIS: It is different research, certainly. It is not just what is happening in laboratories; it is what is happening in clinical settings, too. Clinical trials focused on women are relatively new, yet the differences between men and women in clinical decision-making are very important. Significant progress is under way, much of it spearheaded right here at Magee-Womens Research Institute (MWRI), UPMC, and at the University of Pittsburgh. This dedicated research focus on women will help to refine treatments specifically targeted to the unique characteristics of females.
We have learned that diseases sometimes manifest differently in women than in men. For example, the symptoms of heart attack can be different in men and women. The classic signs—the chest pain or discomfort—many women don’t have. Instead, they might experience shortness of breath or extreme fatigue. Our MWRI researchers are currently using pregnancy as a lens to understand heart disease in women throughout their life span. Our hope is to identify women at highest risk and guide new interventions to help them.
Are you finding that the next generation of researchers is more interested in women’s health?
BEIGI: There’s been a dramatic change in the last 20 years on some of society’s opinions and outlooks on gender health issues. It’s very refreshing to see that some of the barriers to those conversations don’t even exist at this point. We’re living in a time when women’s health has come forward aggressively onto the national stage. It’s a very interesting and exciting time to be involved in women’s health and women’s research and how they relate to women’s health care policy.
DAVIS: The collective force and collaboration shared by UPMC, MRWI, and Pitt is truly unique and because of our partnerships, we hold a unique position as a global influence. We are, proudly, the leader in women’s health research and we continue to attract the world’s most respected and renowned clinicians and researchers specializing in women’s issues. We seek to inform and educate the community through educational programs, fellowships, internships, and trainee grants in which young researchers are given the opportunity to work on significant projects impacting women’s health, from pregnancy issues to the opioid crisis.
How has Magee championed women’s health, and how was it positioned to do this?
BEIGI: Magee-Womens has been the go-to place for women’s health in the tri-state area for over a hundred years. Over the last 20 years, we’ve also developed a world-class academic institution and environment. The UPMC and Magee-Womens Hospital administrative leadership works closely with the MWRI leadership. As we continue to go forward, I’d like to see those relationships get even stronger. In the last few years, we’ve tried to think about ways to leverage the talent and skills that we have at both of these institutions that sit across the street from each other. We’ve begun to think about how we can take it to the next level. There are some very exciting conversations happening.
EDWARDS: Magee has always been a well-known brand, but it was the vision of Irma Goertzen in the early 1990’s that transformed Magee from a good clinical training program into a national center of preeminence for women’s health research. With the building of the Magee-Womens Research Institute and the formation of the Foundation, our dedication exclusively to women’s health, pregnancy outcomes and infants has put us in the top tier for women’s health research nationally.
DAVIS: We have championed women’s health since our inception. It is the fabric of what we do, and the services we provide. We have a very strong partnership with MWRI. The relationships among scientists and physicians at MWRI and Magee focus on advancing the care of women. Today, MWRI and Magee are home to more than 100 faculty members who collaborate with dozens of affiliate researchers located throughout the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon campuses. This collaboration enables us to examine women’s health from all perspectives, resulting in breakthroughs for science and for society.
How has UPMC been supportive of Magee’s mission?
DAVIS: UPMC, Magee, and MWRI all share a common goal of developing cutting-edge technologies and novel concepts. Working together, we have made considerable progress in accelerating advances in women’s health and gender differences. To UPMC, Magee is synonymous with being a leader in women’s health care. Outpatient services throughout our network are branded as Magee to emphasize the quality care we provide. UPMC’s announcement of three new specialty hospitals also highlights our commitment to specialty care.
EDWARDS: UPMC has been very generous in underwriting the formation and the sustainability of the Magee-Womens Research Institute over the years. Now UPMC is providing matching funds for a period of time for our philanthropic fundraising drives that will essentially double the philanthropic investment of our endowment, which we critically need. UPMC has always been a major advocate for women’s health. Both UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and Magee are important regionally and nationally. UPMC recognizes that. Together with the Hillman Cancer Center, we form a triad of the basis for specialty care at UPMC.
Do you think Magee has a reputation for advancing women’s health?
BEIGI: Absolutely. Magee is looked at as one of the premier, if not the most premier, women’s health institutions in the country and maybe in the world. Not only does it have a reputation for excellent care, but people are also beginning to recognize how great the efforts are in investigation and discovery. That’s how the hospital and MWRI work to each other’s benefit. Top-notch clinicians and clinician investigators want to be here in this field because they understand how strong our commitment is. Dr. Edwards has been successful at recruiting premier investigators to help further the mission of both institutions.
EDWARDS: I think the newfound interest in promoting the welfare of women within our society—and making sure there’s justice in how they’re treated—will have a secondary impact on the importance of Magee in the public eye. Magee wants to be seen as a true family-centered and patient-centered hospital provider network. While our patient satisfaction scores, particularly for our physicians, are outstanding, we’re still working to improve our patient experience. Integrating and sharing information with the primary care network and other providers in the system, particularly for moms and babies, is an important link. We’re working to improve those communications so that we’re not only the best place to go when you’re sick, but also the best place to go when you’re in a healthy pregnancy.
What does the future hold for women’s health?
DAVIS: I have no doubt that women’s health issues will continue to be at the forefront of our health care conversations. UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital and MWRI have made considerable progress in accelerating advances with regards to research and treatment in women’s health and gender differences. Our goal is to continue to expand on existing research projects and foster new collaborations related to advancing the science of women’s health. It is vital that we build upon our knowledge gained from our previous research including cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, sexually transmitted infections, opioid use disorders and issues related to pregnancy. It is also crucial that we focus on empowering women to make themselves — and their health care — a priority.
EDWARDS: It’s exciting to see the ability of patients to engage in their own health care in ways that weren’t possible before we had new technologies. I’m a cancer researcher and clinician, and the cancer patients that I see now are much more informed by being able to search and identify trials, new technologies and new modalities on the Internet. We’re seeing that across women’s health. New technology like smart phones and personal devices are revolutionizing health care delivery in a way our traditional infrastructure and mechanisms can’t. Women and patients are benefitting from their own engagement and their own knowledge base in a way that’s going to affect their outcomes. If I had to point to one thing that’s most exciting as a health care provider working in a major health care system, it’s the transformational and disruptive impact that technology is having today.
BEIGI: It’s a very exciting time for women’s health. The progress we have made in the last two decades is going to continue. There’s a great deal of energy around furthering these initiatives. UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital is committed to being highly successful and to shaping the future.
How Important is Philanthropy to continuing women’s health research?
EDWARDS: Without philanthropy, we’d have no program. For much of what we do, including in my own research, the initial seed for funding clinical trials and bench research almost always comes from a philanthropic gift. Often it’s a designated donor gift – someone who was afflicted with women’s cancer and wants to have a role in doing something about the disease to help the next generation of women. I can point to countless initiatives that are now fully mature that got their start through donor philanthropy, including philanthropy from UPMC. These gifts generate a return for women’s health by enhancing our ability to have cutting edge therapies available for women that may lead to new approaches in the future. Some of the work that’s come out of Magee is impacting women nationally, including HPV vaccines and pioneering work in ovarian cancer. Our interest in high-risk cancer prevention strategies and the use of telemedicine and new technology to make screening services available to those in the community may be our next great contribution to the region. And it all comes out of investments that initially started with donor philanthropy.
DAVIS: Philanthropic support is an essential component to further the work of MWRI and Magee. Investments in Magee and MWRI enable research that directly affects patient care today and that contributes to the growing body of women’s health knowledge that creates healthier tomorrows for countless women and their families.