Research gets to heart of advertising gender bias

12/08/04

Women not very visible in ads for cardio drugs

Gender bias in pharmaceutical advertisements for cardiovascular disease may affect treatment, says a new University of Toronto study.

After examining 919 cardiovascular drug ads displayed in American medical and cardiovascular journals published between January 1996 and June 1998, U of T's Dr. Angela Cheung and her colleagues concluded that 80 per cent depicted male patients and the remaining 20 per cent featured women. They are concerned that the gender inequity seen in the ads may contribute to known disparities in how physicians treat men and women with similar heart problems.

"Studies have shown that women are referred later and less frequently for cardiac catheterization and for coronary artery bypass surgery," says Cheung, a professor in U of T's Department of Medicine and associate director of the Women's Health Program at the University Health Network's Toronto General Hospital. "There are also gender-based differences in the use of aspirin, beta-blockers and thrombolytic therapies.

"The gender bias in advertising is a cause for concern, since there is evidence from other research that physicians use pharmaceutical advertisements as an important source of medical information."

The study also determined that the age and race of patients in ads differed according to gender. The women were portrayed as younger than the men, despite the fact that heart disease affects women later in life than men. There were also few non-whites shown in the ads the typical patient depicted was a middle-aged white male. The authors note that physicians routinely underestimate the prevalence and severity of heart disease among women and express concern that their findings also mirror the medical literature.

"While efforts to increase female representation in cardiovascular trials are ongoing, the vast majority of scientific evidence is based on men," says Cheung. This study appears in the November issue of the Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice.

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