McKinsey Op-Ed: Closing the Women’s Health Gap

April 17, 2024
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Despite living longer than men, women spend 25% more time in poor health. McKinsey partners Lucy Perez and Megan Greenfield explore what is driving this gap in health outcomes and what we can do to close it.

Lucy Pérez | Senior Partner with McKinsey & Co. and Affiliated Leader of the McKinsey Health Institute

Megan Greenfield | Partner with McKinsey & Co. and Affiliated Leader of the McKinsey Health Institute

Over the past two centuries, the rise in life expectancy – for both men and women – has been a tremendous success story. Global life expectancy has increased from 30 years to 73 years between 1800 and 2018. However, women, despite living longer than men, spend 25% more time in poor health. This gap has profound implications for women’s lives and society.

The World Economic Forum and McKinsey Health Institute recently published a report defining the health gap and its economic impact. They found that the women’s health gap equates to a staggering 75 million years of life lost due to poor health or early death per year.

Addressing the gap could add an average of seven days of healthy living for every woman annually, boost the global economy by at least $1 trillion, and generate the equivalent impact of 137 million women accessing full-time positions by 2040. For every $1 invested in women’s health, $3 is projected in economic growth. 

Benefits of Addressing the Gap

  • 7 days

    Add an average of 7 days of healthy living for each woman annually

  • >$1 T

    Boost the global economy by >$1 trillion

  • 137 M

    Generate the equivalent impact of 137 million women accessing full-time jobs by 2040

  • $1

    Every $1 invested in women’s health = $3 in projected economic growth

Closing the women’s health gap has the potential to ensure women lead longer and healthier lives, and can participate more in their families, communities, and the economy. When women are healthier, everyone benefits.

What Drives This Gap?

The World Economic Forum and McKinsey Health Institute have defined four core, underlying reasons for the gap:

  1. Limited understanding of sex-based differences: We have a limited knowledge of the science behind women’s health. The study of human biology defaults to the male body, which hinders understanding of sex-based biological differences and results in many treatments being less effective for women than for men and greater health risks. For example, when combined, asthma inhalers and biological drugs for rheumatoid arthritis are far less effective for women. Women report serious adverse events from approved medicines 52 percent more frequently than men, and serious or fatal events 36 percent more frequently, based on data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Adverse Events Reporting System (FAERS)1.
  2. Constrained access to appropriate care: Women are more likely to face barriers to care and experience diagnostic delays and/or suboptimal treatment. For example, women are seven times more likely than men to be misdiagnosed or discharged during a heart attack. 
  3. Data gaps resulting in the women’s health gap being under-counted: There are immense data gaps that keep us from recognizing, measuring, and prioritizing the problem. A review of over 650 studies by the McKinsey Health Institute and the World Economic Forum reveals a disquieting pattern: Only half of these studies differentiated their findings by gender. Even more worrying, when there is sex-disaggregated evidence, outcomes were typically less favorable for women nearly two-thirds of the time.
  4. Low investment limiting scale of innovation: There has been lower investment in women's health conditions relative to their prevalence. This drives a reinforcing cycle of less scientific understanding of women’s bodies and limited data to de-risk new investment.

All of this culminates into fewer healthy years for women – and these years in poor health are not spent in the end of life, but rather in women’s prime working years.

However, there is tremendous opportunity here. Closing the women’s health gap could boost the global economy by adding at least $1 trillion annual gross domestic product (GDP) impact by 2040 – and the U.S. economy by adding nearly $295B annual GDP impact by 2040. This boost would come from factors such as fewer health conditions, fewer early deaths, increased productivity, and expanded participation in the workforce.

Closing the women’s health gap could boost the global economy by adding at least $1 trillion annual GDP impact by 2040.

Globally, 10 conditions alone contribute to more than half of the $1 trillion opportunity, and include areas such as migraines, ischemic heart disease, premenstrual syndrome, osteoarthritis, and ovarian cancer. Just ask a female friend or colleague— these conditions are all too common and familiar.

Importantly, these conditions are not all female-specific or solely related to sexual and reproductive health. The reality is, less than 5% of the women’s health burden stems from sexual and reproductive health concerns. The majority stems from conditions that affect both men and women – with women affected differently or disproportionately by many of them. Only by taking a holistic view of women’s health and looking beyond women-specific conditions can the significant changes needed to close the women’s health gap be achieved.

What Can We Do? 

Acknowledging the true extent of the women's health gap is the first crucial step toward addressing it. In addition to the $1 trillion boost to the global GDP by 2040, we could unlock an average of seven additional healthy days per year for the 3.9 billion women worldwide.

Everyone has a role to play in closing and raising awareness of the women’s health gap. There is opportunity to invest more in women-centric research; collect and analyze more sex-, ethnicity- and gender-specific data; expand access to gender-specific care; create incentives for new financing models; adopt policies that do more to support women’s health; and strengthen women’s representation in decision-making across healthcare-related fields.

Employers and business owners can take steps toward closing the women’s health gap by providing robust benefits coverage, inclusive and supportive workplace policies, and a work culture well-suited for women. Some of these actions could include:

  • Ensuring benefits cover reproductive, gynecological, menopause, maternity, mental health, and fertility care
  • Offering flexible working arrangements that recognize unique challenges women may face during menstrual cycles, menopause (e.g., part-time, reduced schedule), and maternity (e.g., generous parental leave, miscarriage leave, flexible return-to-work schedules, lactation facilities)
  • Educating employees on women’s health, offering allyship and stigma reduction training (such as for menstrual health and menopause), and equipping managers with the skills to effectively support women are crucial steps toward creating a more inclusive and supportive workplace.

For investors, this may take the shape of increasing funding and incentivizing new financing models. Women's health has the perception of being a niche market opportunity. However, the reality is that there remain plenty of opportunities with significant unmet needs across the health space – including menopause, menstrual health, uterine fibroids, gynecological devices, fertility solutions, and endometriosis. Endometriosis alone has a market potential around $180-250B+ globally – comparable to oncology, immunology, cardiovascular, and respiratory therapeutic areas’ global annual spend.2 With women making up ~51% of the world’s population, being responsible for ~80% of health-related decisions in their households, and having increasing economic power, investing in women is not only a moral imperative, but also a good business opportunity.

Working together, we can all raise awareness about the women’s health gap and drive changes that benefit not just women – but families, communities, and the world.

Lucy Pérez is a Senior Partner with McKinsey & Co. and Affiliated Leader of the McKinsey Health Institute, where she leads the Institute’s work on health equity. She is a leading expert in healthcare and life sciences, and the leading author of "Closing the women’s health gap: A $1 trillion opportunity to improve lives and economies".

Megan Greenfield is a Partner with McKinsey & Co. and Affiliated Leader of the McKinsey Health Institute. She co-leads the Firm’s work on women’s health and is a leading expert in healthcare and health equity.

Read the full report from the McKinsey Health Institute here.

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By the Numbers: Gaps in Women’s Healthcare

A recent report by the McKinsey Health Institute found that investments addressing the women’s health gap could add years to life and boost the global economy. In this infographic, we dive into the statistics of the report and what they mean for women’s health.

1 For adverse events, this was 12.9 million for women vs. 8.5 million for men through to 2022, according to the Food and Drug Administration Adverse Events Reporting System (FAERS). For serious or fatal events, this was 8.3 million for women vs. 6.1 million reports for men.
2 Market potential estimate for endometriosis treatments based on prevalence of 190M women, existing unmet need and share of women on contraceptives and other medication to treat endometriosis was considered to determine targetable patient group. Share of endometriosis patients undergoing surgery and IVF further considered to triangulate revenue. Global spend from IQVIA for other conditions listed.

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