First Lady Jill Biden and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra speak at Cedars-Sinai Women’s Health Research Labs and Training Center. (Lila Brown/L.A. Sentinel)

First Lady Jill Biden toured Cedars-Sinai Women’s Health Research Labs and Training Center on Dec. 8 to highlight the new White House Initiative on Women’s Health Research.

The White House Initiative on Women’s Health Research will galvanize the federal government as well as the private and philanthropic sectors to spur innovation and unleash transformative investment to close research gaps and improve women’s health.

Biden visited Cedars-Sinai because of the organization’s longstanding commitment to research and clinical care aimed at improving women’s health. While women comprise half the world’s population, most medical research has focused on men, leaving women-focused research underfunded.

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“Research on women’s health has been underfunded for decades, and many conditions that mostly or only affect women, or affect women differently, have received limited attention,” Biden said during her visit.

“Because of these gaps, we understand far too little about these conditions, and how to help the millions of women who struggle with them. These gaps are even greater for communities that have historically been excluded from research – including women of color and women with disabilities.”

The Women’s Guild Simulation Center for Advanced Clinical Skills was the first stop on Biden’s tour. The facility uses the latest healthcare technology and robotic surgical tools —including lifelike mannequins — to train physicians, nurses and other healthcare professionals and to improve healthcare outcomes and patient safety.

Biden also visited the Van Eyk Laboratory in the Smidt Heart Institute. Its director, Jennifer Van Eyk, PhD, is an expert in proteomics, the study of proteins, and her work focuses on understanding how protein alterations are different in women with heart disease than men with heart disease.

Biden was joined on the tour by C. Noel Bairey Merz, MD, director of the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center in the Smidt Heart Institute. The women’s heart program is playing a leading role in identifying female-pattern heart disease, developing new diagnostic tools, and advancing specialized care for women.

Cedars-Sinai President and CEO Thomas M. Priselac also welcomed U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra, U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu and his wife, Betty Lieu, and journalist Maria Shriver.

Bairey Merz’ research has deepened the understanding that a second “X” chromosome influences heart disease. This knowledge informs more tailored treatments for women who are at risk of cardiac conditions.

Given their high rates of negative health care experiences, it may not be surprising that Black women with Medi-Cal often avoid care, according to research published by the California Health Care Foundation. In its May 2023 study titled Listening to Black Californians, almost four in 10 female respondents with Medi-Cal (39%) report avoiding going to a doctor or hospital because they felt they would not be treated fairly or with respect, compared to one in four respondents overall (26%).

In each phase, women with Medi-Cal shared similar stories of discrimination and negative treatment from the health care system and spoke of being “dismissed, ignored, or spoken to rudely” by physicians and nurses. Women with Medi-Cal are significantly more likely to report specific negative experiences during health care visits than other respondents. Half of Black female respondents with Medi-Cal (52%) report experiencing insufficient pain treatment, significantly higher than female respondents with other types of insurance coverage.

“Whether you’re a Black woman or anyone of different ethnicity, what matters is having information about who you are. What we’re trying to do here though is make sure that the research that’s been done to tell us how to treat you and your body with the medicines that are around are tailored to meet your needs, Secretary Becerra explained to The Los Angeles Sentinel. “As we get closer to doing this, the point is being made for precision medicine based on your personal data because the research that was done on people who are like you will come from a woman instead of a man.”

“As we approach communities, they’re always skeptical and sometimes they have reason,” Secretary Becerra elaborated when asked about research being perceived as experimentation.

“We made a concerted effort to make sure we’ve included people from the Black community. We have to make sure the people who are doing the research, the investigators and the people that are participating in the clinical studies as subjects all know what’s going on.

“I would encourage Americans of all stripes to please participate, because if you don’t then people like you will have to depend on pills and medicines that are based on research from people that aren’t.”

The Cedars-Sinai’s Center for Research in Women’s Health Science seeks to understand how diseases affect women differently than men. The center’s goal is to increase health equity by conducting research on a range of conditions affecting women, including autoimmune diseases, cancer, cardiovascular health, maternal-fetal medicine, neurology, OB-GYN and reproductive health, and orthopedics.

“Diversity and inclusion extend to all aspects of life, including research. It is an honor for the White House to recognize efforts by Cedars-Sinai investigators to fill important gaps in medical knowledge caused by the historical exclusion of women from research. This acknowledgement stresses the importance of inclusive and equitable research practices that benefit all communities,” said Nicole Mitchell, chief diversity and inclusion officer at Cedars-Sinai.

On Dec. 28, the White House will review recommendations to make the policy changes necessary to advance women’s health research.