Alberta government aims to address gaps in women’s health care with $26M injection

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The Alberta government says it’s taking steps to improve the health of women and children by following through on a promise to spend $26 million on research and expanding a newborn screening program.

In this year’s budget it earmarked $10 million over two years to create the Alberta Women’s Health Foundation Legacy Grant, to support research on health conditions such as cervical cancer, cardiovascular disease and other illnesses that disproportionately affect women.

 The Calgary Health Foundation will also receive $10 million over two years for women’s health research.

The money will help address gaps in the understanding of women’s health issues, according to the foundation, including specific disease risks, prevention, screening and treatment needs.

“This investment represents a tangible first step toward removing gender disparity in health-care practice, policy, research and delivery,” said Dr. Erin Brennand, department head of obstetrics and gynecology in the Calgary zone.

“It’s time for women’s health care and research to get the attention and funding it deserves.”

Conditions that specifically impact women are “misunderstood” and “poorly treated,” she said, describing the stories she hears from her patients at Foothills Medical Centre. The stories include struggles accessing menopause care, treatment for pelvic floor disorders and other conditions such as endometriosis.

“This $10-million injection from the Alberta government marks a significant milestone for women’s health in our province,” said Murray Sigler, president and CEO of the Calgary Health Foundation.

Dr. Erin Brennand sits in a clinic room. An examination bed and computer monitor can be seen behind her
Dr. Erin Brennand is a urogynecologist and associate professor in the departments of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Calgary. (Jared Sych/RedPoint Media)

Some of the funding will be used for the development of a Calgary-based rapid access clinic for gynecologic conditions, according to Brennand, where a multi-disciplinary team can fast-track medical assessments, screening and treatment for acutely ill patients.

“We know that the wait for reproductive health care is growing. It can be as long as two years to see a specialist in [Calgary],” she said.

“I am telling the truth when I say that every single one of my call shifts here at the Foothills in the last two months involved telling a woman that she had advanced reproductive tract cancer because she couldn’t be seen for her uterine bleeding fast enough.”

Gap in funding, attention

“Women’s health issues receive shockingly less funding and attention compared to men’s health,” a news release from the Calgary Health Foundation said.

“Alberta tracks lower than the national average of eight per cent of medical research funding going to women’s health, a statistic the $10-million investment hopes to tip in women’s favour.”

According to a 2021 Alberta Women’s Health Foundation report, only 3.4 per cent of research funding in the province goes to women’s health research.

Sharlene Rutherford, the organization’s president and CEO, welcomed the announcement, noting treatment advances start with research.

“This is happening because more scientists are placing their focus in areas that have historically been difficult to research due to lack of funding and/or lack of participation in clinical trials, said Rutherford.

“These gaps are historical and they are precisely why unexplained side-effects, long delays in diagnosis and even misdiagnosis continue to occur across the women’s health spectrum.”

Newborn screening

The provincial government is also spending $6 million to expand the Alberta Newborn Screening Program, which tests infants for a number of conditions, including metabolic and endocrine disorders, in an effort to start treatment early and reduce complications and even death.

Four new conditions are being added to the list for a total of 26.

“This will make the program one of the most comprehensive in the country, as Alberta will be the first province to screen for the four new conditions.”

According to Health Minister Adriana LaGrange, delays in diagnosis of some of the conditions included in the screening program can lead to developmental delays and, in some cases, death.

“I see every day the difference that the early diagnosis of these conditions make. It can be the difference between a child that is severely disabled and a child who grows up healthy, normal development,” said Dr. Eliza Phillips, a metabolic geneticist at  Alberta Children’s Hospital.

“It’s life-changing for these families.”

The program already screens for 22 conditions, through a heel prick test and blood analysis, including spinal muscular atrophy, cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease.

A spokesperson for the health minister said the expansion of the screening program involves information technology upgrades, laboratory relocation, lab equipment upgrades and a health evidence review. 

According to the provincial government, 99.2 per cent of Alberta newborns were screened and the results for 98.95 per cent of those babies reported within 10 days in 2022-23.

Of the 47,147 infants screened last year, 282 were found to have abnormal test results, the province said.

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