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New York City
May 2003

The Barnard Summit: Women and Health

Barnard College hosted a daylong forum on women’s health trends worldwide, The Barnard Summit: Women and Health. The daylong event, an initiative of Barnard President Judith Shapiro, brought together a group of twenty-one panelists including U.S. government policy makers, health advocates, journalists, doctors and researchers.

The goal of the summit was a better understanding of women’s health trends globally and access to healthcare. Approximately 700 women and men attended the conference, which was supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Merck & Co., Inc. and Pfizer Inc.

The first panel, moderated by President Shapiro, was an assessment of recent health trends. While millions of women around the world lack basic healthcare, there have also been major improvements in recent decades. The changes are due to medical advancements and also “to a growing recognition that women are not small men,” Shapiro said.

Research focusing directly on women has been an essential part of the progress. “When we were in medical school the typical model was the 70 kilogram male; it was like the rest of us were in the background somewhere,” Dr. Cristina V. Beato said. Dr. Beato is the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health to the Secretary of Health and Human Services. “We’ve made incredible strides and I think the key is women in health fields, women in research and women in policy.”

In the past, discussions of reproductive organs and breast cancer dominated women’s health to the exclusion of other issues. This is beginning to change, yet most women under 45 still seem more concerned about breast cancer or reproductive cancer than anything else, according to Glamour Magazine Editor-in-Chief, Cindi Leive. “The reality, though, is that they are more likely to die from heart disease or even a car accident.”

Lack of access to healthcare is another issue that needs to be examined, according to Faye Wattleton, president of The Center for the Advancement of Women, a research, education and advocacy organization. “The reality is that 42 million people in this country, this year, will not have health care coverage and the majority of them will be poor women, working women, women trying to make ends meet,” she said.

Lack of access to healthcare was also a major focus of the second panel, Women and Healthcare: A Critical Analysis. “We have a huge problem in the amount of information that’s out there and a bigger problem of access to services,” said Judy Norsigian, executive director and co-founder of the Boston Women’s Health Collective.

Discrimination also plays a role in the quality of medical care women receive. Byllye Avery, founder of the National Black Women’s Health Project, told a story about a dentist in Florida who decided to extract her tooth rather than perform a root canal because he assumed she couldn’t afford the procedure.

“We live in a country that is still, sad to say, full of racism, sexism, classism and homophobia,” Avery said, “it influences the way people are treated and the information they are given.”

The improvements in women’s healthcare that have taken place are largely due to the grassroots efforts of “women getting together and talking about women’s health,” said Dr. Vivian Pinn, director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health at the National Institute of Health. “Better health for ourselves, as well as our community, has two facets, what the healthcare system can provide for us and what we can provide for ourselves.”

While there was consensus among panelists that conditions are getting better in Western countries, they also spoke about the millions of women in developing countries that lack the basic resources to stay alive. Women and World Health: A Matter of Survival was the third panel.

Panelists called for wealthier countries to do more to alleviate poverty in developing countries and to provide access to healthcare. Economist Jeffrey Sachs, special advisor to the United Nations Secretary General and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, talked about a recent trip to Malawi where he saw 450 people dying of AIDS in a hospital without medicine. He also met a grandmother who carried one of her grandchildren more than six miles to a clinic only to find there was no quinine to treat the child’s malaria.

“You ask, ‘what does the United States do?’ Tragically little,” he said. “We spend about one-ten thousandth of our average gross national product for health in poor countries.”

Women’s healthcare cannot be examined in isolation from politics, the environment or socioeconomic concerns. It is important to take responsibility both personally and as professionals, Barnard President Judith Shapiro said. “Intrinsic to being a good citizen is being an informed citizen about healthcare.”#


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