Half the planet: Big, underreported stories in women’s health

  • Nicole Donnellan, M.D., School of Medicine, University of Pittsburgh.
  • Makeba Williams, M.D., Washington University OB/GYN, Director of Menopause Medicine at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. 
  • Yong Wang, Ph.D., assistant professor, Washington University in St. Louis.
  • Moderator: Meryl Davids Landau, independent journalist. 

By Katie Quinn

Women and people with reproductive organs experience major health problems throughout their lifetimes. However, stories about women’s health are severely underreported. And health research for people with reproductive organs is often underfunded. The panel guides journalists on the current medical state of menopause, endometriosis and technology that could influence birth outcomes. 

Endometriosis affects one in 10 women of reproductive age. That's over six million people in the United States. Nicole Donnellan, M.D. from the University of Pittsburgh explained the benefits of excision methods to help with long-term pain relief. 

Excision physically removes tissue around the pelvis area versus the other technique of burning tissue through fulguration. Endometriosis can be expensive to treat, especially with a history of misdiagnoses. 

"There's huge direct and indirect costs from this disease,” Donnellan said. "They estimate in U.S. dollars over $10,000 a year per woman."

Makeba Williams is a doctor and expert on menopause at Washington University. She shared her insight on the intersectionality of menopause and race. Anyone with female reproductive organs will experience menopause in their lifetime. Symptoms vary from person to person but typically include hot flashes and chills.

"This isn't just about being uncomfortable having to dress in layers, getting your bedsheets wet," said Williams. "Hot flashes, night sweats impact health, quality of life and it costs a lot."

There's an increased risk of heart disease associated with menopause. Black women, on average, have the longest duration of menopause and intensity of symptoms. This is in part due to access to care, culture, biology and other social determinants. 

Maternal mortality rates have made headlines recently because of the risks associated with giving birth in the United States. Yong Wang is an engineer and researcher at Washington University. His team is trying to improve the diagnosis of preterm births and postpartum hemorrhaging. New technology would create 4D imaging of uterine contractions and blood flow patterns to determine human labor progression. 

"We cannot still tell the difference between normal and abnormal contractions," Wang said. 

Wang hopes to put these devices into low-income health care environments where rates of birth complications are highest. Biomedical imaging is the future of women's health care and pregnant people.

Katie Quinn is a student reporter at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri. She was a 2023 AHCJ Missouri Health Journalism Fellow.