Women are prescribed more medications than men are, but they’re less likely than men to use those medications as prescribed. And even though they are prescribed more drugs, those prescriptions may not be ideally suited to the way women’s bodies process medications.
Unpublished research presented in Washington, D.C., on Saturday at “Women’s Health 2012: The 20th Annual Congress” aimed to unearth disparities in the way women and men are prescribed drugs and in the way they use those drugs.
Researchers looked at prescription and insurance records for about 16,000 women and almost 14,000 men from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31, 2010.
Overall, women had an average of five prescriptions during the study period compared to men’s 3.7, and 68 percent of women — but just 59 percent of men — had a prescription for at least one medication for a chronic or acute condition during the study period. The higher average for women held even after prescription contraceptives were removed from the mix.
The research, conducted by Medco Health Solutions Inc. and the Society for Women's Health Research, also found that women aren’t prescribed drug treatments in accord with recommended guidelines as often as men are; that disparity was particularly clear when it came to treatment for cardiovascular disease and diabetes, both of which are major causes of illness and death among women.
For instance, the research found that 30 percent of women with diabetes used test strips to test blood glucose, compared with 35 percent of men, and about 66 percent of women had a test that measures blood sugar over time (an A1C test), compared to more than 70 percent of men.
Only 59 percent of women who had coronary artery disease used cholesterol-reducing medications, while 71.5 percent of men with that condition took such drugs. And among those who had had a heart attack, 63 percent of women used a beta blocker, while 69 percent of men used such drugs.
The authors suggest that women may stop using medications if they experience negative side effects or don’t see the kind of results they expect. Both of those situations might stem from the way drugs are tested in the first place, the study says: Because men tend to be over-represented in early-stage drug trials, the authors argue, development of medications might not fully take into account women’s physiology, particularly the different ways in which diseases may affect their bodies and the way their bodies absorb and metabolize drugs. That could lead to women’s suffering more adverse side effects from or not realizing the full benefits of the medications they take.
The authors call for reevaluation of the way drugs are tested and prescribed, saying gender differences should be taken into account at every stage of the process.
Of course, Medco benefits when its customers fill their prescriptions, so the company’s interest in figuring out how people use their meds is obvious. Still, the findings point to what could be a fixable gap in women’s health care.