The National Institutes of Health yesterday announced plans to increase the attention and resources devoted to research on women's health.
In a meeting with members of the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues, Acting Director William F. Raub said the NIH will create a new Office of Research on Women's Health to ensure the adequate representation of women in clinical research and to target research areas of particular concern to women.
The announcement came after a spate of reports that women's health issues have been neglected by the biomedical establishment.
Last year a National Institutes of Health memorandum said under- representation of women in clinical studies has caused "significant gaps" in medical knowledge, and a General Accounting Office study this year was highly critical of the NIH's progress in carrying out a long-standing commitment to include more women in federally funded studies of diseases and their treatments.
"NIH will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that appropriate numbers of women are included in research projects, both intramural and extramural, and that this perspective is well-articulated, understood and acted upon by the research community," said Raub, who attended the meeting along with the directors of eight NIH facilities that currently are involved in women's research.
Raub said Ruth L. Kirschstein, who now serves as director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, will head the new office.
The NIH announcement follows new guidelines, issued at the end of August, to encourage the inclusion of women in federally funded research. In unusually strong language, the institute said that scientists applying for federal funding will have to provide "compelling justification" for not using women
in equal numbers in clinical research.
Federal health officials also have said that Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan has decided to recommend to the White House that Bernardine P. Healy, head of research for the Cleveland Clinic, be named the next director of the NIH. Healy would be the first woman to hold the now-vacant post.
Members of the Congressional Caucus on Women's Issues said they were pleased with the results of yesterday's meeting.
The new office will be based in the NIH director's office, giving it what NIH officials called a "central focus" over other NIH groups performing research of interest to women. It will be staffed with three people initially, with plans for the staff to grow.
"We are heartened by the speed with which the NIH has moved to address our concerns," said Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), co-chair of the congressional caucus.
Schroeder said she will press for the formation of an independent standing advisory committee and a summit on women's health issues to ensure that "by the year 2000 women are no longer treated as second-class citizens when it comes to their health."
Women historically have been underrepresented in medical research for a number of reasons. Researchers have, for example, worried about the consequences of testing new drugs with unknown side effects on women because of the possibility that they might become pregnant or that the medication might otherwise affect the reproductive system.
In addition, some researchers have felt that the greater variations in female hormonal balance made it more difficult to interpret the results of clinical studies involving women than studies of the male population.