NIH: Strategic Plan for Research on Women’s Health

The forthcoming strategic plan will be focused on guiding future NIH research efforts to improve the health of all women throughout the life course.

By Alana Hippensteele, Managing Editor

In the publication of NOT-OD-22-186, the Office of Research on Women’s Health (ORWH) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) makes a request for information (RFI) from stakeholders across the health care continuum, including pharmacists, researchers, patient advocates, patient communities, and the public, on topics to be considered in the development of the forthcoming 2024–2028 NIH-Wide Strategic Plan for Research on the Health of Women. Upon completion, this strategic plan will be launched in January 2024.

“Responses to the RFI will help inform the body of information on the state of science at NIH regarding the health of women,” said Samia Noursi, PhD, NIH ORWH associate director for science policy, planning, and analysis, in an interview with Pharmacy Times. “Likewise, NIH continually assesses the goals in the 2019–2023 strategic plan and will use that information to develop the next strategic plan.”

Although the ORWH is looking for perspectives on the strategic plan for 2019–2023 specifically regarding what should be modified to account for recent scientific advances, the ORWH is also looking for responses addressing emerging research needs and opportunities that reflect the changing landscape of the study of the health of women. They are also exploring cross-cutting scientific themes—such as multidisciplinary research, and/or utilizing data science, natural language processing, and artificial intelligence—or research-related themes that should be common to all future strategic goals and objectives—such as considerations of sex, gender, and age on health and disease, as well as on health disparities.

“Like its predecessor, the 2024–2028 ORWH strategic plan will help prioritize NIH resources for conducting and supporting research and other efforts that pave the way toward scientific investigations, discoveries, and workforce efforts to benefit women’s health and maximize their biomedical research careers,” Noursi said. “Though it’s likely that many of the efforts will complete or complement those in the 2019–2023 plan, we will know more about the new plan’s direction after stakeholder feedback is gathered and all the input is assessed.”

Additionally, Noursi noted that other components of the strategic plan’s development will include interviews with NIH staff members and/or external stakeholders; portfolio analysis and bibliometrics; a literature review; an analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats; and application of the theory of change, which involves a discussion based on available evidence surrounding how an intervention or a set of interventions is expected to lead to a specific development or change.

“This critical collection and evaluation of information provides an opportunity for communities from different sectors to weigh in and improve women’s health research,” Noursi said.

In accordance with Federal law and NIH policy, ORWH is tasked with addressing the inclusion of women, minorities, and individuals across the lifespan in clinical research. As a part of this endeavor, ORWH also organizes the allocation of NIH resources for research efforts on the health of women across NIH Institutes, Centers, and Offices (ICOs).

Although clinical research funded by the NIH is required by law to enroll women, ORWH also looks for these efforts to go beyond just enrollment but also toward research design that support the detection of the influence of sex on efficacy and safety. With data showing sex-specific results, health care professionals, such as pharmacists, are able to stay better informed on how to safely and effectively treat and care for female patients as well as male patients.

“Understanding the influence of gender on health…can facilitate the delivery of equitable care by all biomedical professionals,” said Elizabeth Barr, PhD, an ORWH social and behavioral scientist administrator, in an interview with Pharmacy Times. “Pharmacy professionals could all benefit from an enriched understanding of the domains of sex and gender [in their practices].”

In the strategic plan for 2019–2023, Advancing Science for the Health of Women: The Trans-NIH Strategic Plan for Women’s Health Research, Noursi explained that the missions of both the ICOs and ORWH are incorporated with a focus toward the professional careers of women in health and biomedical research. This strategic plan specifically looked to pave the way toward greater scientific and workforce efforts for the benefit of women in these professional fields.

“One of the goals of NIH-wide strategic plans on women’s health research is that all women in biomedical research careers reach their full potential. This includes women in pharmacy—and with good reason—as pharmacy professionals are involved in many aspects of research, education, and care delivery,” Noursi said. “NIH strives to help the entire biomedical enterprise better recruit and retain women, as well as provide points for re-entry.”

Additionally, Noursi noted that NIH provides more than just ideas on workplace sex and gender equity in health care fields for other institutions to follow.

“We provide the extramural community with programs, administrative supplements, research grants, and policies,” Noursi said. “For example, NIH offers family-friendly policies to its extramural community, and it also has released a new anti-harassment policy. NIH provides similar benefits and protections for its employees. I look forward to seeing what new approaches the strategic plan helps launch.”

In the forthcoming strategic plan, Noursi explained that the mission will be focused on guiding future NIH research efforts to improve the health of all women, while factoring in recent public health events that have had a significant impact on women’s health, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, Noursi noted that pharmacy professionals are often a primary source of information for women who have questions regarding their prescribed treatments or adverse events (AEs) they experience.

“Pharmacy professionals are integral in many facets of women’s health and can provide important perspectives and insights on what’s working—and what needs improvement—in research and health care,” Noursi said. “Pharmacy professionals are often the first and sometimes the only point of interaction with a health care professional when over-the-counter therapies are used to treat ailments and conditions.”

Additionally, Noursi explained that pharmacy professionals play critical roles in laboratory research and clinical trials, coordination of studies, identifying toxic responses, monitoring for AEs, and serving on data safety and monitoring committees and as principal investigators.

“Many pharmacy professionals know a great deal about women’s health research, how it’s received in real-world circumstances, and what might be done to improve every point from bench to bedside or pharmacy counter,” Noursi said.

Additionally, through a congressionally directed and ORWH-led conference held in 2021 on Advancing NIH Research on the Health of Women, there were several topics addressed during the course of the conference that were relevant to the health of women. These discussions were reviewed by NIH and the Advisory Committee on Research on Women’s Health (ACRWH), with recommendations made from ACRWH as a result. Noursi noted that these ACRWH recommendations and considerations of recent scientific advances—such as new technologies, health priorities, and feedback from this RFI—will all be considered in the development of the NIH-Wide Strategic Plan for Research on the Health of Women.

“The strategic plan and the process behind it are essential parts of the efforts to close the knowledge gap related to women’s health. Until the 1990s, science had focused on men’s health by default,” Noursi said. “If you see a need for women’s health research or a way to improve it, we want to hear about it. Pharmacists’ input is valuable and could help improve the future of the health of women.”

The NIH ORWH will accept input on the next strategic plan through September 29, 2022. Responses can be submitted electronically here, with further inquiries sent to NIHWideSPWH@nih.gov.

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