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TIME100 Health Panel Talks ‘Medical Gaslighting’ and Investing in Women’s Health

Actress and healthcare advocate Halle Berry; geneticist Marlena Fejzo; and Daniel Skovronsky, chief scientific officer at pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, spoke about the importance of investing in women’s health at a TIME100 Health panel in New York on Monday.

By the end of the panel, Fejzo, who has experienced and deeply researched hyperemesis gravidarum (HG), a condition that leads to extreme nausea and vomiting in 1% to 3% of pregnancies, pushed for literal investment in a potential solution from her copanelist.

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She asked Skovronsky about a drug Eli Lilly has shelved that could help come up with a potential treatment. “I’m ready to test it,” she said. “I’m sure we’ll find a way to work together,” he responded, closing out the panel.

Eli Lilly sponsored Monday’s event, celebrating the 100 most influential people leading change in health. The TIME100 Health list spotlights doctors, scientists, business leaders, advocates, and others at the forefront of big changes in the industry. TIME’s senior health correspondent Alice Park moderated a discussion between Berry, Fejzo and Skovronksy—probing all three about how to ensure that women’s health is prioritized.

Berry began the discussion with a graphic but enthralling description of why she became a strong advocate for funding more research and education around menopause in Congress. (In May, she joined a group of senators to push for bipartisan legislation that would put $275 million towards the issue.) Berry described to the audience that after having sex with her now-husband Van Hunt, it felt like she had “razor blades” cutting her vagina. She said she excreted a “heinous substance.” Her doctor initially suspected herpes—and she remembered grilling Hunt about giving her the disease. It turned out he didn’t have it, and neither did she, her doctor told her a few days later.

“I’m like, wow, alright, so talk about putting your tail between your legs,” she said.

Berry found out that she was dealing with perimenopause and vaginal atrophy; having sex when your vagina is dry can tear up your vagina, she learned, and Berry was shocked that she had such little information about menopause despite having access to the best doctors in California. So, she set her sights on advocating for more research and education around the condition.

Fejzo also spoke about how her personal health journey influenced her advocacy. Years ago, she suffered from HG. “When I got pregnant, I was so ill that I could not move without violently vomiting,” she said. She had to “lie completely still” on her back, couldn’t even drink water and needed a feeding tube, she said. She was depleted; but her doctor accused her of just trying to get attention. “I was too weak to argue with him,” she said.

But Fejzo spent the last two decades searching for the cause of HG. In 2010, Fejzo took a 23andMe DNA test—and eventually convinced the company to include questions about HG in its survey. Armed with genetic data and survey responses from about 50,000 people, she reported in her latest research paper in Nature, which published last year, that people with HG tend to have high blood levels of a hormone linked to appetite suppression and vomiting that the body produces during pregnancy. After GDF15 levels rise after conception, victims of the disease end up with intense nausea and vomiting.

What she found in her 2023 Nature paper, Fejzo said, means that “we’re on the pathway towards a cure.”

Skovronsky, of Eli Lilly, spoke at length about a disease that is not typically thought of as a women’s health issue: Alzheimer’s. Most people don’t realize that women make up two-thirds of patients with the disease, he said. They do partly because women live longer than men and the disease affects older people more. The disease also disproportionately impacts women because they are more likely to be a caretaker of someone with Alzheimer’s. He estimated the cost to society over the “next couple of years” could be as high as $5 trillion in “lost productivity and direct costs”—mostly borne by women.

Skovronsky also spoke to Fejzo and Berry’s experiences as women facing dismissive responses from their doctors. He described the phenomenon of doctors disbelieving female patients as “medical gaslighting.” It’s part of the pharmaceutical company’s job, he said, to educate doctors to prevent this behavior.

The TIME100 Impact Dinner: Leaders Shaping the Future of Health was presented by Eli Lilly, Northwell Health, Deloitte, On Purpose, A Podcast by Jay Shetty, and Apeiron Investments.

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