Experts discuss utility of big data to shape the women health policy

At a roundtable organized by the ICMR and GIGH, the discussions happened on the future of women’s health using data and research to shape policy and programs

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New Delhi: With the aim of initiating dialogue around various aspects of women’s health, The George Institute for Global Health along with the Indian Council of Medical Research organised a roundtable on “The Future of Women’s Health: Using Data and Research to shape women’s Health Policy and Program” in New Delhi on 10th August. The roundtable brought together government representatives, researchers, academics, funding agencies and institutional bodies to reflect and deliberate on the key issues pertaining to women’s health.

Second in a series of discussions on women’s health, this roundtable focused on key challenges in the areas of data collection and analysis. Some of the challenges identified were consideration of cost, asking the right questions, establishing mechanisms to collect the right data, finding the right tools to analyse the data, taking the time to analyse and report the data, and strengthening the evidence base for changing policy and practice around women’s health. The roundtable also addressed some very pertinent questions on the reasons for gaps in gender-based research.

While non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like ischemic heart disease (known as heart attack), stroke, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes claim the largest number of lives of women in India, the narrative around the health agenda for women remains limited to issues of sexual and reproductive health. 

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) adopted by India have brought the discussions around gender equality and women’s empowerment into mainstream narrative. New data is emerging that points to a major discrimination in the area of women’s health. While non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like ischemic heart disease (known as heart attack), stroke, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes claim the largest number of lives of women in India, the narrative around the health agenda for women remains limited to issues of sexual and reproductive health. NCDs were responsible for 60% of all deaths amongst women in 2013, up from 38% in 1990. Their contribution is about 40% in the 15-49 year age group, and >75% after the age of 50. Back and neck pain, depressive disorders and respiratory diseases cause major disabilities among women in India.

Speaking at the roundtable, Dr Vivekanand Jha, Executive Director, The George Institute for Global Health said, “Women’s health research is still very much in its infancy. Women are still purposefully and systematically excluded from clinical research, and there is no appreciation of sex differences. Even when data is collected on both men and women, sex disaggregated analysis is never done, so women’s health conditions are not studied in a nuanced manner.”

“Greater focus on women’s health is the need of the hour. There are gender differences in society, economics, and at the work place, besides of course in the family, which contribute to distinct health needs and varying health system uses.”

The roundtable brought forth some very important points of discussion such as the need to look at multi-dimensional aspects of women’s health while framing policies and programmes. Also, the discussions threw light on the burden of mortality among women in India due to non-communicable diseases (NCD), which, over the years have emerged as the top killers of women in India – responsible for close to 60% of all deaths among women in 2013. Diseases such as ischemic heart disease, stroke, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes form the top risk factors for women in India.

This was a second in a series started by The George Institute for Global Health India, in order to address various issues related to women’s health. The first gathering was held in March last year, where the aim was to collect the views of various stakeholders that can help document gender disparities in awareness, access and quality-of-care, and finding biological, social, cultural and health system related explanations for these disparities. It also aimed at determining how best to improve the health of women and adolescent girls, and at identifying strategies to reshape the women’s health agenda through a life course approach including prevention and management of non-communicable diseases and injuries.

Gender based research is therefore crucial to inform and strengthen the national health policy, and health care delivery under it.

The key observations and recommendations from the roundtable:

  • More focus is needed on the burden of non-communicable diseases among women

  • A gendered approach to health data and research is essential

  • Building capacity to undertake women’s health research is required

  • Gender discrimination in healthcare delivery needs to be concretely measured

  • The missing data/ data gap on single, widowed and aged women

  • Role of men as well as close family members needs to be tracked to understand women’s health better

  • The need to involve community in data collection

  • Mental health is another area being ignored under women’s health

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