AHRQ Views: Blog posts from AHRQ leaders
For Women’s Health Week, Let’s Make Prevention Primary
As we approach Mother’s Day and National Women's Health Week, all of us at AHRQ are committed to addressing the unique healthcare needs of women and ensuring that women receive the best possible care—especially care aimed at disease prevention, early detection, and living well.
The theme of this year’s National Women's Health Week—"Women’s Health, Whole Health: Prevention, Care, and Well-Being"—reflects the importance of self-care, including proper diet and exercise, strategies to maintain positive mental health, and regular primary care visits, including preventive care. Unfortunately, too many people only see their doctor, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant when they feel ill or have a specific medical problem.
AHRQ has invested in several initiatives to advance women's health and well-being. As one example, AHRQ's EvidenceNOW: Managing Urinary Incontinence program supports primary care practices’ implementation of nonsurgical interventions for urinary incontinence, which affects about 30 percent of older women in the U.S. Meanwhile, AHRQ’s most recent National Quality and Disparities Report featured a special section that provided data on some of today’s most pressing challenges in women’s health, including rising rates of severe maternal morbidity, eclampsia/preeclampsia, severe postpartum hemorrhage, and venous thromboembolism or pulmonary embolism. Disparities related to racial/ethnic categories were common.
This week’s headline-making announcement by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force is another important step in making prevention, access to care, and well-being for women a reality. The Task Force, an independent panel of primary care experts supported by AHRQ, issued a draft recommendation that all women be screened for breast cancer every other year between the ages 40 and 74. However, the Task Force is also calling for more research into how additional screening with breast ultrasound or magnetic resonance imaging might help women with dense breasts, as well as evidence on the benefits and harms of screening in older women.
This recommendation highlights the importance of getting regular breast cancer screening examinations. Regular breast cancer screenings are important for detecting breast cancer years before symptoms develop. Early detection is a woman’s best chance to find cancer in the early stages when it is most successfully treated. Currently, a mammogram is the best way to do that.
In 2022, it was estimated that more than 280,000 women were newly diagnosed with breast cancer, and more than 43,000 were estimated to die from it. While Black and White women are equally likely to receive a breast cancer diagnosis, Black women are about 20 percent more likely to die from the disease (and twice as likely to die from cervical cancer). Ensuring Black women start screening at 40 is an important first step in addressing inequities in this area.
Additional issues are impacting women’s health and the care they need. As we all know, the COVID-19 pandemic affected almost every part of our lives. Keeping up with our preventive healthcare services is no exception. Many people have put off routine preventive services, such as cancer screenings and vaccines, for themselves and their families in the last few years.
And in recent months, we’ve also learned that women are disproportionally affected by Long COVID, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While up to one-third of people with COVID-19 experience Long COVID, the CDC estimates are much higher for females—as well as transgender and bisexual people, people without a bachelor’s degree, and people with a disability.
One way to make preventive services a primary part of healthcare delivery is to incorporate reminders in electronic health records and patient portals. Such prompts can motivate healthcare providers and patients to prioritize preventive services that have received the highest ratings from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.
Another potential strategy to expand the uptake of preventive services, especially for those juggling the healthcare needs of others, may be expanding “off-hours” access to care, offering services at locations most convenient to patients, and using “pop-up clinics” rather than expecting patients to travel to central care facilities, such as a physician’s office.
National Women's Health Week is a reminder of the adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Adult preventive healthcare for women should include screenings for conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, and counseling for smoking cessation and eating habits. Preventive healthcare can help women—and all of us—live longer and healthier lives.
Let’s honor National Women's Health Week and the women in our lives by making preventive healthcare primary!
Dr. Valdez is Director of AHRQ.