Growing up, my family’s mantra was “all kids are created equal.” My parents had more power and greater rights than those of us under 18—as it should be (but that’s an editorial for another day). Yet when it came to their children, they were very democratic. Boys were not favored over girls. My brother received no more or no less than his three sisters. And no more or no less was expected of him. For the era I grew up in, it was a surprisingly feminist household. But that, of course, was my little world of family.

In the bigger real world, we all know that things are not so equitable. We’ve long heard that men get the better jobs, make more money, and yes, even receive better health care.

So it was heartening to hear the good news last week about a shrinking economic gap: The earnings gap between men and women in the United States has shrunk to an all-time low. According to USA Today (September 13, 2010), “Women earned 82.8% of the median weekly wage of men in the second quarter of 2010, up from 76.1% for the same period a decade ago and the highest ever recorded, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.”

Well, bravo. Women are making “progress” when it comes to bucks, but how about where it concerns our bodies?

The health care system has often been faulted for favoring men. Many experts say more research dollars need to be allocated specifically to women’s health issues. In addition, we hear much about the unique barriers to access that women experience. The most recent example is the November 2009 guidelines issued by the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), which suggested that women refrain from getting mammograms until age 50. If referring physicians remain persuaded by the “guidelines,” it will result in a barrier to access for many. Fortunately—though confusing—the guidelines have changed yet again, which the experts we talked with believe is a positive step for women. (See our story, “To Go or Not To Go?” in the Special Report.)

While the health care system is far from gender-blind, it does seem to me that the medical imaging community is making strides on behalf of women. We have seen significant progress from researchers, providers, and manufacturers. Educational events help build awareness about breast cancer with the public and provide more women with access to life-saving information and technologies. For example, in June, Aurora Imaging Technology Inc showcased its state-of-the art Mobile Dedicated Breast MRI System at the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life in Los Angeles. In addition to viewing the technology, visitors had a chance to speak with breast health professionals, pick up informative literature, and get a free breast cancer risk assessment.

Events aimed at breast imagers are important, too. Helping providers operate more efficiently—and keep their doors open—is critical, especially as we suffer from a shortage of breast imagers, and mammography can be a loss leader. Sectra’s upcoming October event to be held in White Plains, NY, “Breast Imaging Trends: Economic and regulatory factors shaping the field and how workflow can have a positive effect on the future of your practice,” is designed to do just that.

Then there are the researchers who team up with vendors to conduct life-saving studies. U-Systems, an ultrasound company, for example, is currently sponsoring the SOMO*INSIGHT Clinical Study. The study is designed to evaluate whether digital mammography in combination with the somo*v Automated Breast Ultrasound System is more sensitive than a routine screening mammogram alone in detecting breast cancer in women with greater than 50% dense breast tissue. To date, more than 9,000 women have participated in the study, which is actively recruiting up to 20,000 women at multiple breast imaging centers across the country.

And finally, there are countless examples of providers who have gone above and beyond to motivate women to show up for their mammograms. The Imaging Center for Women (ICW) in Fredericksburg, Va, is one such organization. The recently opened facility features a soothing setting designed especially for female patients. By adding a level of comfort and not compromising on quality care, administrators and physicians hope to persuade women to stick to those yearly exams.

Clearly, we’re moving forward. But hurdles remain. How can we overcome barriers to access, especially for lower-income women? When will the FDA approve new technologies like digital breast tomosynthesis? To explore these and other questions, see our Special Report: Women’s Imaging.

Our earnings are still 17.2% shy of a man’s. But our prospects for better health care are getting stronger. Glad my pocketbook isn’t my priority.

Marianne Matthews

Marianne Matthews