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OM founders Gigi Ngan (left) and Anca Griffiths (centre) photographed with Emilie Berthet Clairet. OM addresses women’s health issues, which modern medicine largely ignores thanks to male-centric medical research. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

Women’s health is the focus of new platform OM – inspired by a Chrissy Teigen tweet about childbirth, say its founders

  • Medical protocols are based on male-centric research that ignores the female experience – potentially putting women’s lives at risk
  • ‘So many women’s health matters remain taboo,’ says the co-founder of OM, an online educational platform where women can consult experts on their health issues
Angela Baura

It took a Stage 3 breast cancer diagnosis for Dr Emilie Berthet Clairet to realise the weaknesses in the male-centric foundations of modern medicine.

The Hong Kong-based microbiologist-turned-certified holistic nutritionist began standard treatment for the disease three years ago. While undergoing surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, doctors warned Clairet of the classic side effects such as nausea, low blood count and hair loss – but not of the potential effects on her ovaries, reproductive system and hormones.
A year after having hormonotherapy to reduce the risk of breast cancer returning, the then-45-year-old Frenchwoman was shocked to discover she had reached menopause.

“I wasn’t at all prepared. When I asked my doctor, she said menopause may or may not have been induced by chemotherapy,” says Clairet. “I was given very little information and support around the changes in my body, my mental health, my looks and how to handle all of this with my three young children.”

Emiliie Berthet Clairet was warned of the classic side effects of cancer treatment such as nausea, low blood count and hair loss – but not of the potential effects on her ovaries and hormones. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

To support her own healing, Clairet studied holistic nutrition online during her cancer treatment. Post-treatment, she lost sensation in her left arm and chest, and suffered back pain when she tried to exercise. When her doctor said she probably would not fully recover, Clairet turned to natural health care practitioners for help.

By combining conventional and complementary care, Clairet is now healthy and thriving, and sharing lessons from her experience with other women. “It’s thanks to surgery and chemotherapy that I am alive,” the medical doctor acknowledges. “Medical practitioners follow a protocol, which is reassuring as they have a standardised approach and specific guidelines in place.”

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The downside, she notes, is that the research that drives that protocol is primarily done in men, so it ignores the unique biological and emotional differences between men and women – and may even put women’s lives at risk.

Dr Alyson McGregor, a professor of emergency medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University in Rhode Island in the US, and co-founder of the Division of Sex and Gender in Emergency Medicine, has done much research into this.

“The whole medical care system is trained to look for patterns of disease based on a half-century of research conducted on men, by men,” says McGregor, author of Sex Matters: How Male-Centric Medicine Endangers Women’s Health – and What We Can Do About It.

The cover of McGregor; s book.

“From studying disease prevalence and risk factors to treatment and medication protocols, women were excluded from animal and human studies because the hormones in the menstrual cycle introduced multiple variables constantly in flux. It was therefore easier, quicker and cheaper to study men and assume the findings would apply to women too. But men and women are different at a cellular level.”

The diagnosis and treatment of cardiovascular diseases is an example of how the research gap plays out in real life. According to research published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation in November 2020, women face a 20 per cent increased risk of developing heart failure or dying within five years after their first severe heart attack compared with men.

“In medical school, we were taught that heart disease was a blockage of the large arteries and the way to fix this was to remove the blood clot or open the artery up with a stent. But there are many other ways of having heart disease that are more common in women, like microvascular disease, which is a disease of the smaller arteries, or spontaneous coronary artery dissection [CAD], which is common in young women around the time of pregnancy,” McGregor says.

Men suffering heart attacks will complain of crushing pressure on the chest and pain down the left arm – seen as key symptoms in diagnosing a heart attack. Women tend to report more subtle signs like fatigue or shortness of breath.

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“Women may have chest pain, too, but because of their emotional, social and cultural ways of expressing pain, or because they’re young, doctors and health care practitioners don’t recognise their symptoms of heart disease. Often, doctors mistake symptoms for signs of anxiety when women don’t fit the pattern of disease they’ve been taught to recognise,” McGregor says.

Stroke is another example. While men typically experience paralysis on one side, women may have a migraine-like headache, vertigo and stuttering.

“Because men and women present differently, there’s a delay in diagnosis. As a result, women are much less likely to be treated with evidence-based medication. But even when a woman does have one-sided paralysis from a stroke, or crushing chest pain from a heart attack, she is still less likely to be referred for treatment. Sometimes, it’s just bias built into the system,” McGregor says.
Dr Alyson McGregor is a professor of emergency medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University in Rhode Island in the US. Photo: Angela C. Brown
Prescription drugs are another area of concern, as men and women metabolise them differently. McGregor notes that men have higher excretion rates of common drugs like Zofran (used to prevent nausea in cancer patients having chemotherapy and radiation therapy), benzodiazepines (including Xanax and Valium, types of sedatives used to treat anxiety and insomnia) and Tylenol (also known as paracetamol, for headache and pain relief).

Despite this, the dosing guidelines are the same for men and women, which puts women at risk of side effects that aren’t accounted for in the research.

To empower women to safeguard their health and advocate for themselves, McGregor and Clairet now lead real-time, interactive masterclasses on OM – an online educational platform that enables subscribers to discuss women’s health issues with accredited experts.

Young Hong Kong pharmacists on a mission to demystify drugs

McGregor’s class covers key areas in which health care disparities between men and women exist, and strategies for self-advocacy; Clairet’s class covers targeted dietary plans for peri/ menopause.

“There are a lot of practitioners that know women’s bodies and can help us recover, whether it’s after surgery, during pregnancy or menopause, for example. OM makes it easier for women to connect with these practitioners and find the right solutions,” Clairet says.

Hong Kong mum Anca Griffiths, and Gigi Ngan, a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner in Hong Kong specialising in women’s health and reproductive health co-founded OM. A tweet by American model Chrissy Teigen gave Griffiths the idea.

Chrissy Teigen with her children. Photo: Instagram/@chrissyteigen

“After the birth of my first child five years ago, I had no understanding of the physical and mental transition I would experience. I assumed it was just me – until Chrissy Teigen gave birth to her first child and tweeted ‘no one told me I would be going home in diapers too’. The media called it ‘truth bombs’ and other mums chimed in that they too did not know what to expect,” Griffiths recalls.

She consulted Ngan on ways to educate women about post-partum healing, and other experts on women’s mental and physical health, sleep, fertility, the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, breastfeeding and menopause. They launched OM in January.
“So many women’s health matters remain taboo,” says Ngan, who leads classes on post-partum healing and diet. “Women often don’t speak openly about their health challenges – be it post-partum, miscarriage, infertility and more. They feel alone, frustrated, and ashamed when their bodies do not function ‘as they should’, which causes anxiety. When mental health suffers, the whole body suffers.”

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Griffiths hopes that through candid conversations with experts that specialise in women’s health, women will better understand their bodies, be empowered to explore their options, and feel confident to ask practitioners the right questions.

She also hopes to spotlight positive aspects of womanhood. “People know about the ‘baby brain’ after having a child [absent-mindedness], but studies show new mothers grow bigger brains after giving birth.

“The menstrual cycle is associated with mood swings, but there is also a period in the menstrual cycle when a woman has a tendency to use both sides of the brain [which allows for more flexibility in problem solving]. I want women to know and celebrate all this and more.”