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Supporting female performance in sport and fitness
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7 Females being left out of medical research: another example of male bias?

The image shows researchers in lab coats looking at a computer screen.

While females being largely left out of sport science research may prevent them from optimising their performance, being left out of medical research can have serious health impacts. In Activity 6 Dr Alyson McGregor, an emergency medical doctor, looks at the outcomes when medical research is exclusively conducted on men and its results are then applied to women.

Activity 6 The male model as the framework for medical research

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

Watch the TedTalk below by Dr Alyson McGregor as she explains the effects that medicines tested exclusively on males can have on female health. Watch from the start until 04:10 (‘… what else are we missing?’). Then answer the following questions:

  1. Why do you think medical research uses predominantly male subjects?
  2. What are the potential health impacts of this practice on women?
Download this video clip.Video player: boc_sfps_1_session1_activity6.mp4
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It is quite shocking that most drugs that have been withdrawn are due to their side effects on women. This means women are essentially being used as test subjects in many cases.

  1. To ensure that research studies can be published the data needs to be reliable. Reliability means that if it you did the test on different days you would get the same results. This works when testing on men as they do not have the same degree of fluctuations in hormone levels that may skew any data. Thus, it becomes easier and cheaper to test men and then assume males and females are alike and will respond to drugs in the same way.
  2. This practice ignores that females may respond differently to the effect of drugs, such as in the example of Ambien where this sleep aid is metabolised more slowly by women meaning it may still be active when they are driving to work the next day. Although not mentioned in the video, you may be aware that Aspirin is another example of a drug that has different effects on males and females as it protects men against heart attacks but can be harmful to healthy women (McGregor, 2020).

It is not just women who have a cycle of hormones. Men have a daily cycle where levels of testosterone and cortisol change and this can impact on research findings.

A well-controlled research study would incorporate factors such as testing participants at the same time of day, controlling their exercise, food and drink intake prior to testing. However, for females the influence of the menstrual cycle has to be factored in. This means that testing of female participants would have to take place at the same time of their menstrual cycle (e.g. all participants were tested on day 5 of their menstrual cycle), and if repeated tests were done, they would need to be done at the same time of their cycle.