Women’s History Month: the evolution of women’s health screening - Bio.News

Women’s Health Week: the evolution of women’s health screening

women's health screening

History shows that women’s healthcare has often taken a back seat. Dating back centuries—to the early days of documentation—women have been left out of medical and science knowledge production. The result of this exclusion was, for a while, a healthcare system modeled after men and limiting the timely or accurate diagnosis in the “fairer sex.”

Luckily, the advent of new screening tests for women’s health concerns has brought a new reality today—and the future equality of healthcare for women is more promising, though work is still needed to bring more attention to women’s health.

A short history of women’s health screening

The evolution of women’s healthcare had a very limited understanding of specific health concerns. Early screening tests were quite primitive, focusing on visible symptoms rather than on prevention. Observation and palpation were the foundation of detection over the formalized screening programs used today. Yet after all these years, distinctions still exist between both sexes.

According to a recent Danish study, there is a significant difference in the timing of diagnosis between men and women. Whereas women are diagnosed before men with osteoporosis, they determined the average difference in age of a cancer diagnosis, for example, was 2.5 years later than men.

The history of women’s medical screening tests has been marked by significant advancements, reflecting the evolution of history and a growing awareness of women’s health needs. According to the Biotechnology Innovation Organization’s (BIO) Women’s Health Initiative Task Force co-chair, Sheila Mikhail, “BIO and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are focused on improving the healthcare standards of women.” This includes supporting research to advance the understanding and application of what is ultimately the foundation of women’s health.

Screening tests are part of this foundation and play a crucial role in early detection, prevention, and management of disease. Here are a few of the most significant breakthroughs in women’s medical screening tests.

Pap smear

Notably one of the most significant medical breakthroughs in the early 20th century was the Pap smear. Introduced in the 1940s by Dr. Georgios Papanikolaou, this test revolutionized cervical cancer screening by detecting abnormal cells in the cervix allowing for early intervention and significantly reducing mortality rates. With the adoption of pap smear screening programs and the inclusion of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, cervical cancer deaths have decreased by 33% in the United States over the past three decades.

HPV test

The development of the HPV test as a complimentary screening tool alongside a Pap smear test has increased detection rates for precancerous and cancerous cervical lesions. Its application safely decreases the screening interval and reduces the number of unnecessary colposcopies and follow-ups by specifying women at high risk for recurrent infection.

Diagnostic testing

The introduction of the mammogram in the 1960s utilized X-rays to visualize breast tissue for early detection of breast cancer. Initial skepticism over concerns about radiation exposure and false-positive results faded with technological advancements leading to improved image quality and accuracy. Mammography made its place as the cornerstone of breast cancer screening programs across the globe.

In recent years, there has been a paradigm shift in medical imaging technologies. There are more precise, non-invasive screening methods being offered today, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasound (US), offering enhanced diagnostic accuracy for women’s health conditions. 

Genetic screening

Advances in genetic testing over the past few decades have been significant in hereditary diseases and reproductive health. Screening tests, such as BRCA gene testing for susceptibility to breast and ovarian cancer, not only offer insights into genetic predisposition but also empower informed decision-making regarding risk management and prevention.

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