As the world continues to reimagine approaches to healthcare following the COVID-19 pandemic, key questions remain around women’s health and the provision of essential services that fall under this umbrella. Women were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, observing worse health outcomes, larger job losses, and higher rates of worker burnout. Even before the pandemic hit, however, the U.S. ranked abysmally low among advanced industrial countries on nearly every key performance indicator related to women’s health.
The lone bright spot is that the growing severity of these disparities may finally be bringing greater awareness to how women’s health can be provided in a more comprehensive and effective manner. Women’s health has become increasingly of interest to venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and employers seeking to retain their workers. This past November, the Kenan Institute-affiliated Center for the Business of Health hosted the 2022 Business of Health Conference, at which our research director, Paige Ouimet, moderated a panel on the business of women’s health exploring many of these very issues. The panel featured three respondents whose perspectives spanned healthcare management and care provision, offering a multifaceted discussion on challenges and innovation across the landscape of women’s health.
When discussing the unique issues faced by female workers – and particularly mothers – UNC Surgery Department Chair Caprice Greenberg outlined a plethora of disparities that she had observed over the course of her career. Greenberg pointed to a body of research showing that 92% of male surgeons had children compared with only 60% of female surgeons; female surgeons that did have children were more than twice as likely as the general population to suffer from a miscarriage. These statistics, as well as the arduous work resident physicians face during their early career, subsequently lead many women to avoid better-paying specialties, such as surgery – or else avoid entering the medical field altogether. Greenberg pointed to the urgent need to address such disparities, particularly considering the physician shortages and patient backlogs that many healthcare systems are experiencing post-pandemic.
Audrey Lysco, division president at Unified Women’s Healthcare, discussed the challenges she observes in her current role, which involves providing support and back-end services to a network of private OB/GYN providers. Many of these providers struggle to receive reimbursement from certain subsets of patients, such as Medicaid recipients; similarly, many private hospitals are dealing with increased costs of care and are thus turning much of their focus to their profitability. While healthcare providers are dependent on their ability to earn a living, this focus on profits can lead to tremendous inequalities for women receiving necessary care. For example, the average wait time for an OB/GYN visit is 31.4 days – the longest average wait time for any specialty other than dermatology. Lysco advocated for a more value-based care model, in which providers are rewarded for successful outcomes rather than individual services; however, she also acknowledged the difficulties of such a transition.
Innovation and entrepreneurship can play a crucial role in tackling many of these issues, as pointed out by Stephanie Winans, co-founder and CEO of Iron Health. However, Winans mentioned that her experience in the entrepreneurial and investment worlds is something of an anomaly. The lack of female representation in the venture capital space has historically led to underinvestment in startups and other businesses that might seek to close some of these gender gaps. Looking more granularly at women’s health outcomes reveals further disparities; Winans also pointed to the racial disparities that lead Black women to be up to three times more likely than white women to suffer from maternal mortality. While innovation has begun to pick up, Winans emphasized that these issues can’t and won’t be properly addressed without adequate representation and equity.
In their closing remarks, all three panelists emphasized the need to make sure women’s health needs are accounted for in healthcare systems and workplaces. Women’s health gets treated and discussed as a subcategory of healthcare, despite the fact that these issues directly affect half of the population – and indirectly affect all of us. The systemic disparities deeply ingrained into our current healthcare system have informed the practices of healthcare providers, patients, investors alike. However, as acknowledged by each member of the panel, the challenges of the current moment also offer an opportunity for progress.
This commentary is written by Technical Business Writer Thomas Nath based on a panel titled “The Business of Women’s Health” from the 2022 Business of Health Conference. To see the full panel discussion, click here.