United States Fails Women’s Health. What Can We Do To Raise the Grade?

Published on The Daily Femme – Monday, Dec. 13, 2010

Contributed by Annamarya

Last Thursday, the National Women’s Law Center and Oregon Health and Science University released their new women’s health report card (the fifth since 2000) and the results aren’t pretty. According to the New York Times, the report card, which gave an overall Unsatisfactory grade to the United States (and F in key objectives of the Healthy People 2010 government initiative), showed fewer women are screened for cervical cancer and more are tested positive for the sexually transmitted disease chlamydia.  There was also an increase in diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and binge drinking among women since the last report card was issued in 2007. And while there were some improvements–fewer women are smoking and dying of coronary heart diseases or stroke, and screening rates for colorectal cancer and high cholesterol have improved in the last three years–we’re still not “where we should be,” says Dr. Michelle Berlin, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Oregon Health and Science University School of Medicine and associate director of the university’s Center for Women’s Health, who noted that, within the 10 years of issuing the report card, “you would hope the needle would have moved more than it has.”

Now that we’ve identified the areas of women’s health that need improvement both on a state and national level, we need to work on identifying the actual reasons behind such issues in order to develop initiatives that will combat these problems. Dr. Berlin speculates that an increase in chlamydia may be due to an increase in testing, but she is not sure what accounts for the drop in cervical cancer screening, which fell to 78 percent from 84.8 percent in 2007 (90 percent is the Healthy People 2010 goal). It could be, she says, due to confusion over changing guidelines and the new vaccine or health coverage loss. But what about obesity? Why has it increased among women from 24 percent to 26.4 percent (the Health People 2010 goal, says NYT, is a reduction to 15 percent )? Is it because one-quarter of women “are sedentary and get no leisure-time physical activity,” as the report shows? Is it due to heightened stress or poor eating habits, which the report card also shows is an issue as most women don’t eat the recommended five vegetables and fruits a day? And, if so, is that due to the economic downturn (pay cuts or lay offs), or price hikes on food? Or is it all four?

In order to truly help women achieve a healthier body and mind, we need to make it easier for them to take the necessary steps to do so by focusing on eliminating the obstacles to better health. While there’s a certain personal responsibility that comes with taking care of oneself, we cannot ignore our social responsibility. We need to understand that not everyone has the same resources, means or funds to stay healthy, and to expect all women to be on or close to the same page completely ignores the disparities in our society. In the case of obesity, if there are more obese women in poorer communities, and their obesity is linked to poor diets, lack of knowledge on proper nutrition, and inability to afford healthy foods, we should develop free or low-cost programs in these communities that offer classes on aerobics, cardio and nutrition, as well as provide information on (and possible vouchers for) local, easily accessible and affordable farmer’s markets or health food shops. Granted, there are a number of other factors that can negatively impact our health maintenance (i.e. being overworked, underpaid and having no time) but if we can address and provide positive solutions to at least one or two of those issues, we could open the door for solutions to larger problems. All it takes is that one step. (Another potential solution to “sharply improve women’s health,” says the National Women’s Law Center’s Vice President of Health and Reproductive Rights Judy Waxman, would be the new health care overhaul law, as its provisions would, she asserts, bar gender rating on health insurance policies and expand Medicaid eligibility, making it easier and more affordable for women to access health care).

On a side note, Dr. Berlin’s views on binge drinking are troubling. For Dr. Berlin, the rise in binge drinking, which she suggests can be attributed to “poor mental health and depression resulting from economic insecurity or unemployment,” is especially concerning “when we think about what other things can happen when people engage in binge drinking: there are more sexual-assault problems, they’re more likely to acquire an S.T.D., and more likely to have accidents while driving.” By saying she worries about the spike in binge drinking among women because “there are more sexual-assault problems,” she is placing the responsibility solely on women. While I won’t argue the correlation between binge drinking and sexual assaults as I have not examined such statistics, if a woman experiences sexual violence while or after binge drinking, it is notbecause she’s inebriated but because her attacker saw some type of vulnerability and took unwanted advantage of it. Yes, we do need to protect ourselves in any which way or form, but we should not bear the blame for experiencing sexual assault in a drunken state–the attacker should always be at fault for their horrific and violent actions. We should never have to say, “Well, if I wasn’t drunk, this wouldn’t have happened,” because no matter what we do, where we are or what we wear, we don’t deserve to experience sexual violence. If anything, women shouldn’t binge drink not because of the possible threat of sexual assault but because it harms our physical health.

The New York Times: Study Finds Setbacks in Women’s Health


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