These days, it’s hard to keep up with the news. It feels like there hasn’t been a 'quiet' week since around 2015, before the EU referendum, Brexit, the pandemic and everything else that’s happened in between. So you’d be forgiven for not noticing a news story about the healthcare inequality women face in Britain, which came out on 23rd December 2021, just as everyone was wondering whether Omicron was going to spoil their Christmas.
Following a consultation where women and girls in England were asked to share their experiences of healthcare (and which Refinery29 readers were invited to participate in as part of our Uncharted Bodies series) in an effort to close the gender health gap, the government has finally openly acknowledged that sexism is ingrained within the UK’s healthcare systems. The gender health gap does exist and it is hurting women.
According to the Department of Health, there were almost 100,000 responses to the call for evidence. They revealed a concerning picture which ministers described as "stark and sobering", including:
- Damaging taboos and stigmas in women’s health can prevent women from seeking help and reinforce beliefs that debilitating symptoms are 'normal'.
- Over eight in 10 have felt they were not listened to by healthcare professionals.
- There’s a feeling services for specialities or conditions which only affect women are of lower priority compared to other services.
- Women believe compulsory training for GPs on women’s health including the menopause is needed to ensure their needs are met.
- Nearly two in three respondents with a health condition or disability said they do not feel supported by the services available for individuals with their condition or disability.
We already knew (thanks to a study conducted by Manual, a wellbeing platform for men) that while men are more likely to face greater health risks in many countries, the UK does not follow this trend. We have the largest female health gap in the G20 and the 12th largest globally.
In the summer of 2021, the House of Lords published a report stating their concerns about the gender health gap. They noted that a variety of studies have shown that in many areas of healthcare women experience poorer outcomes. For instance, in 2016, researchers at University College London found that women with dementia receive worse medical treatment than men with the condition. They also cited another study which found that women are half as likely as men to receive painkillers after surgery. And, of course, we know that diagnosis times for conditions such as endometriosis can be as long as seven years.
Women and people with wombs have been speaking up about the obvious and glaring health inequalities they face for years. Many will feel it is about time that this issue is taken seriously by politicians.
It is not right that over three quarters of women feel the healthcare service has not listened. This must be addressed.
As a result of its findings, the government has vowed to "reset the dial on women’s health". It plans to set out what it is calling a "Vision for Women’s Health" which will include key government commitments while recognising the system-wide changes needed to tackle some of the issues raised by the call for evidence. This will be included in the government's Women’s Health Strategy, which is expected to be published in spring 2022.
Of the announcement, the Minister for Women’s Health Maria Caulfield said: "The responses from the call for evidence were in many ways as expected, particularly with regards to women's priorities, but in some places the revelations were shocking."
"It is not right that over three quarters of women feel the healthcare service has not listened. This must be addressed."
The UK needs to close the gender health gap. Women and people with wombs need a healthcare system which supports their needs throughout their lives as they evolve and develop. A new strategy and commitment from the government to tackle this issue will go a long way but there’s no denying the fact that many of the health inequalities faced by women start long before they experience illness. Women remain left out of clinical trials, and medical research which looks at conditions affecting women – such as endometriosis or premenstrual syndrome (PMS) – is not always given the same time, attention or funding as research which looks at other ailments (erectile dysfunction, for instance).
And so the government’s announcement shows that women’s voices have finally been heard. But there’s still a long way to go to fix healthcare inequality across the board. The new women’s health strategy is a good start.