Last year, the UK Government launched a survey to gain insight into women’s health in England. It followed a growing number of reports that the system, in its existing form, was grossly letting women down.
There were nearly 100,000 responses to the survey. They included first-hand, personal experiences from women, family members of women, and reflections from health and care professionals.
The results of the survey revealed worrying shortcomings in the healthcare system and exposed what is now commonly referred to as the ‘gender health gap’.
In direct response to this, the first Government-led Women’s Health Strategy was published earlier this month (July 2022) and encouragingly, it appears those concerns highlighted have been heard and addressed.
It provides welcome reassurance that Government does recognise failings in the current health and care system and confirms that the gender health gap does exist.
When the Government announced the strategy last year, they committed to “resetting the dial” on women’s healthcare and eradicating inequalities in the system, acknowledging that women do face substantial barriers when it comes to accessing the healthcare they need.
As outlined in the strategy, whilst women in the UK on average live longer than men, they spend a significantly greater amount of time managing poor health and disabilities.
The strategy also concedes that there is not enough focus placed on women-specific issues, such as miscarriage and menopause.
Further, as women are underrepresented and, in many cases, excluded from clinical trials, not enough is known about health conditions which impact only women.
Business development, research and policy co-ordinator at The Women’s Organisation, Helen Burkinshaw, says: “We don’t need research to tell us there is a gender health gap, we live it every single day.
“However, due recognition of the barriers faced, and committed actions to address inequalities in the system, whilst long overdue, are very welcomed.”
Helen offers further insight into the Women’s Health Strategy below.
So, what does the strategy say?
Not only are women facing significant challenges accessing the healthcare they need, but they are not being listened to either. At too many stages in their healthcare journey, women are not being taken seriously and are in many cases completely dismissed by healthcare professionals.
There are deep-rooted and detrimental disparities in women’s health services and outcomes across the country. It is not acceptable that currently a woman’s health varies by their characteristics such as age, ethnicity, gender, and disability. Specifically for example, women experiencing homelessness, refugees, asylum seekers, and women in prisons, experience additional barriers and poorer health outcomes than women in general.
So, what are they going to do?
The strategy commits a 6-point plan to transform the healthcare system in England and tackle the issues faced:
- Ensure women’s voices are heard
- Improve access to healthcare services for women
- Address disparities impacting access to healthcare services
- Improve health and care information and education
- Develop understanding of how women’s health impacts their experience in the workplace
- Support more women’s healthcare research and include women in health and care studies
Findings from the survey identified areas of particular concern, including menstrual health and gynaecological conditions, fertility, pregnancy, pregnancy loss and support, menopause, mental health, violence against women and girls, and ageing and long-term conditions.
The strategy aims to tackle these issues through specific, cross-cutting targeted action, including:
Implement new approaches to research on women’s health and care:
- Tackle the ‘male as default’ approach to research and clinical trials to increase female participation in research and medical studies
- Ensure research approach is representative of society, so no women are excluded from the field
Close research and data gaps around sex differences in health conditions, symptoms and outcomes:
- Encourage publicly funded health research to include data on sex breakdown of participants
- Ensure women are included in research to build understanding and tackle the root causes of why women’s voices are not listened to
Ensure doctors and healthcare professionals are trained to provide best care:
- Enable healthcare professionals and doctors are able to treat their patients knowledgably and empathetically
- Implement specific assessments on women’s health for medical students to improve baseline understanding of women’s health
Remove additional barriers to healthcare:
- Ensure women can access the support they need
- Removing financial barriers for female same sex couples to receive IVF services
- Provide specialist services and up to date research for conditions such as endometriosis