Critical mass creates opportunity for better health outcomes

Critical mass creates opportunity for better health outcomes
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What does it take to move the needle in health care outcomes? In an era when technology is advancing at a breakneck pace, people are living longer than ever, and public policy is up for near-constant debate, how do we secure a healthier future for the greatest number of people?

The answer may be a lot simpler than most people think. If we want to improve health care across the human spectrum, we need to start at the same place human life does: with women.

From conception through birth, the first nine months of existence predict an astonishing percentage of the rest of a person’s life — both male and female. By better understanding the many factors associated with both normal and complicated pregnancies, we can anticipate a wide range of conditions that impact human health: heart disease; genetic or metabolic disorders; physical, mental and emotional development. Better understanding can lead to early interventions that are, quite literally, life-changing.


So again, what does it take to get there? It’s no secret that women’s health care traditionally attracts less funding. We think of it as specialized, a political movement, a feminist cause. But to view women’s health care in these terms is to miss the bigger picture. When we fail to invest here, it’s humanity that suffers, not just women.

In business, we often point to the theory of critical mass when predicting a sea change. It’s a concept that began with physics — it is the amount of material needed to create a nuclear explosion. Adapted for sociology, we are now seeing it play out across many fronts in our culture.

When women reached 20 percent of the U.S. Senate, members made a bipartisan push to improve the way the military handles sexual assault cases. When 25 percent of Hollywood’s producers were women, the casting couch — and serial predators such as Harvey Weinstein — were publicly identified and held accountable. So we know that when women represent 20 to 30 percent of an institution, change is possible.

When corporate boards reach critical mass, studies show that companies become more efficient, make more money and have to restate earnings less often, according to a report in TIME magazine. The evidence is clear: When you want to accomplish an objective, the key question is how you can create the critical mass necessary to enact that objective.

When applying this principle to women’s health care, we need to ask, who should own this objective? Who is in the best position to advocate for it? The natural answer is women. We must be, to paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi, the change we wish to see in the world.

At Magee-Womens Research Institute in Pittsburgh, where I am honored to serve as chair of the board of directors, women comprise approximately half of our world-renowned research team. We represent what we are trying to accomplish. And already, that critical mass has borne fruit: in October, the institute will play host to one of the largest gatherings of women’s health expertise, policymakers, advocates and stakeholders in recent history with the Magee-Womens Research Summit.

This summit is designed to kickstart an international conversation on women’s health that will accelerate research and, ultimately, solutions that will benefit human beings worldwide. Its culminating event is the awarding of the $1 million Magee Prize, one of the largest medical awards of any type, recognizing breakthrough research from scientists around the world who are focused on women’s health.

What began as an idea — that what improves women’s health improves all human health — is starting to make its way from vision to reality. By supporting this journey, we are working toward a common goal of common good.

And there can’t be a better use of critical mass than that.

Carrie Coghill is president and CEO of Coghill Investment Strategies, LLC and chair of the board of directors at the Magee-Womens Research Institute in Pittsburgh.