In 2016 Dr. Lori Brotto, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of B.C., was named executive director of the Women’s Health Research Institute (WHRI), a leading academic and research centre embedded within BC Women’s Hospital + Health Centre with the goal of enabling women’s health research across the spectrum. Here Brotto talks about her work and her vision.
Q: Why is the funding of women’s health research so important?
A: When women are healthy, all of society benefits…. When we study societies where women are not healthy, it is immediately evident that many different aspects of those societies suffer. Without research, excellent health care is simply not possible, and research absolutely depends on funding.
Q: What are some of the new and interesting research projects on the go at WHRI?
A: One of our star WHRI members is a world leader in the vaccine for HPV (human papillomavirus). Her collaborative and international research has the long-term aim of eventually eradicating cervical cancer (because the vaccine prevents many of the strains of HPV associated with cervical cancer). In another [initiative], we are working to develop a smartphone app designed to be culturally safe for Indigenous and immigrant women struggling with postpartum depression…. There’s so much quality work being done by our close to 200 members across B.C., but that’s just a quick snapshot.
Q: What are some of the challenges unique to studying women’s health?
A: One of the challenges is that there is no dedicated funding body for women’s health research. For example, there is the Arthritis Foundation and the Kidney Foundation, but there is no corresponding funding body for research on women’s health topics. As a result, you end up having researchers do this work totally or mostly unfunded, which means it gets done off the side of their desk, or they scrape together some volunteers, or it simply doesn’t happen.
Q: What can be done to break down barriers that prevent women from achieving their best possible health?
A: This is going to sound so clichéd but it’s so true. It’s awareness. And that’s part of the reason why I very readily accept invitations to speak with the media, because it’s only through increasing awareness and providing education to the general public—not just women, but everyone—that we will make progress. Knowledge-raising and awareness-raising campaigns are absolutely key.
Q: You have an extensive background in sex research. What role does sexual health play in the totality of a woman’s well-being?
A: Sexuality is a core part of quality of life. It’s not just this small, circumscribed, leisurely activity that some people do some of the time. Everyone, even people who are not sexually active for any number of reasons, still have a sense of their sexuality and how important that is to them. It’s a core part of people’s identity. It shapes self-esteem. It’s associated with depression, anxiety, relationship discord, infidelity—it’s all related to sexuality.
Q: The theme for this issue is ‘Women’s health warriors.’ In your opinion, what makes a warrior for women’s health?
A: Someone who is absolutely ruthless in communicating the facts about women’s health to broad audiences, despite all the barriers that might get in the way, like political barriers, systemic barriers or personal barriers. The warrior is someone who still champions the scientific voice, regardless of any potential backlash and says, “Actually, no, these are the facts.”
Written by Joseph Dubé.
Photography by Sherri Koop.