February 4, 2011


Women's Health Initiative: Behind the scenes

School of Nursing professor Ora Strickland let her audience in on the backstory of the Women's Health Initiative, a groundbreaking federal study.

In her Founders Week Distinguished Faculty Lecture on Feb. 2, Strickland provided insight into the "scientific and sociopolitical lessons learned" as a top consultant and insider on the National Institutes of Health study that ran from 1993 to 2005.

The WHI had its roots in the 1980s when more women were elected to Congress, Strickland said.

"There was a lot of concern about the lack of information on women's health," she explained. "These women [in Congress] began to notice that when the director of the NIH came to give his annual report for the budget, there was little focus on women's issues."

In 1990, the NIH Office of Research on Women's Health was established. And President George H.W. Bush appointed a woman head of NIH "for the first time ever."

"The focus was on the leading causes of morbidity, declining quality of life, mortality in women," Strickland said. "These are the three areas in which women suffered most as they age — cardiovascular diseases, cancer of the breast and colon and osteoporosis."

In the past, reasons given for excluding women from studies included "lack of bathrooms" and concerns about the effects of a clinical trial on pregnant subjects.

"Did you know that the first HRT (hormone replacement therapy) trial looked at the benefits of HRT in men only?!" Strickland said.

About 168,000 women, aged 59-79 participated in the WHI.

"There was a lot of emphasis on hormone replacement, which became the cornerstone of the WHI," she said. "The WHI assessed HRT, the effects of a low-fat diet, calcium and Vitamin D supplements."

A downside to the study was that "we lost young investigators," Strickland said, because they were "trying to build careers" and the study's length meant publishing opportunities would not be available for a long period of time.

But a big positive from the study was the development of a "wonderful pool of data for today's investigator," Strickland concluded.

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