Tribute to Dr. Bernadine Healy MD 1944-2011

by: Nancy Walsh (of MedPage Today)  |  August 10, 2011
In 1991, not long after she assumed the directorship of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Dr. Bernadine Healy wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine, “Decades of sex-exclusive research have reinforced the myth that coronary artery disease is a uniquely male affliction and have generated data sets in which men are the normative standard.”She cited the Veterans Administration Cooperative Study, the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial, and the U.S. Physicians Study, the last of which demonstrated the benefits of prophylactic aspirin in preventing myocardial infarction and included 22,000 men — but not one woman.”The extrapolation of these male-generated findings to women has led in some cases to biased standards of care and has prevented the full consideration of several important aspects of coronary disease in women,” Healy wrote. She termed this male-only research attitude the “Yentl syndrome,” referring to a 19th century character in a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer who disguised herself as a man in order to go to school for Talmudic study. “Being ‘just like a man’ has historically been a price women have had to pay for equality,” she wrote.Twenty years later, it seems hard to believe that women then were largely excluded from clinical trials. Healy, who died this week from brain cancer at age 67, dedicated a large part of her career to directing the focus of healthcare research away from its male exclusivity. She insisted that any studies funded by the NIH include women if appropriate.

While at the NIH, she spearheaded the Women’s Health Initiative, which was intended to investigate the major health problems of postmenopausal women, particularly heart disease, cancer, and osteoporosis. The program was launched with $625 million in funding and included more than 160,000 women. Among other findings, the initiative showed that hormone therapy actually was harmful, rather than beneficial as had been assumed.
Dr. Healy recalled that a major obstacle in her career was just being admitted to medical school (Harvard), “at a time when women were seen as an exceptional and questionable addition to the profession.” Her crusade to bring women’s health to the attention of the public and the medical establishment was a singular achievement. The women of America owe her a very large debt.

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