Doctors are now going to learn about women’s health – give me strength

·5-min read
Photo credit: Andriy Onufriyenko - Getty Images
Photo credit: Andriy Onufriyenko - Getty Images

As I took my first sip of tea this morning, I had to exert some serious self-control to prevent from spitting it all over my phone screen, while I took in the latest headlines about a new government directive on medical sexism.

Medical students will now have to learn about women’s health as part of their training.

Yes, you read that correctly. Medical students will *now* have to learn about women’s health as part of their training. Excuse me while I take a long lie down.

As part of new plans to improve women’s healthcare, the government has published the first Women’s Health Strategy for England. The plan claims to set “bold ambitions to tackle deep-rooted, systemic issues within the health and care system to improve the health and wellbeing of women and reset how the health and care system listens to women.” One of these so-called “bold ambitions” will see medical students having to pass training to diagnose and treat women’s health conditions.

I think they’re playing it a bit fast and loose with the word “bold” there, but then again playing it fast and loose has rather been the mot du jour in the government these past few years.

The strategy comes after a call for evidence in relation to the gender health gap across England that saw 100,000 responses. The gender health gap refers to the disparity in medical care between men and women, in which women wait longer for diagnoses and have their complaints routinely dismissed and disregarded by medical professionals.

Research has shown that women are prescribed less pain medication than men after identical procedures and are less likely to be admitted to hospital when complaining of the same symptoms. A Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists report in 2019 found that accurate information regarding women’s healthcare is often difficult to access, as is care.

The root cause of this is pinned, by many, on medical education, research and funding, the majority of which is conducted with male bodies as the default. With scientists believing that men and women differ at a cellular level, this means that research applied to male bodies cannot be blanket applied to female bodies – which, of course, it often is.

What’s more, less is known about female-specific health conditions – which we know from the oft-cited average diagnosis time of 7-8 years for the debilitating condition endometriosis, which sees 40% of sufferers needing to visit the GP over 10 times before getting a referral.

In her 2021 Channel 4 documentary, Sex, Myths and the Menopause, Davina McCall exposed the short-fallings in the way women’s health has been handled, revealing that the menopause is an optional extra that doctors have to opt-in to study while in medical school (despite 51% of the population being women); that two-thirds of women have been prescribed anti-depressants for the menopause; and that women face double the risk of developing Alzheimer’s due to the reduction in oestrogen around the menopause. And with female dementia sufferers shown to receive worse medical treatment than male, this is cause for serious concern. Will a menopause module become obligatory under the government’s new plans?

Photo credit: Oscar Wong - Getty Images
Photo credit: Oscar Wong - Getty Images

Journalist Caroline Criado Perez exposed how women’s healthcare is given less funding than men’s in her book Invisible Women and revealed how certain conditions are being misdiagnosed as the default symptoms and treatments are studied as male.

When we consider additional barriers faced by women of colour, the disparity in care becomes even more staggering.

So, yes, this new strategy is much, much needed. And there are good things in it that shouldn’t be overlooked: an extra £10 million for a breast cancer screening programme; the removal of additional barriers to IVF for same-sex couples; improved transparency on IVF to tackle the postcode lottery surrounding the treatment; and formal recognition of miscarriage.

These particular developments are hard-won after campaigners have shed light on issues and increased wider understanding of the barriers many face to fertility treatment and the emotional trauma of miscarriage. We’d expect developments to follow increased understanding, just as night follows day – we shouldn’t have to fight so hard for it.

That the introduction of mandatory tests surrounding doctors’ understanding of women’s health have only just been introduced is deeply depressing. Medical misogyny in this country is so entrenched that the UK has the largest female health gap in the G20, and yet the report fails to mention any sort of predictions or tangible results that are likely to come from these fluffy promises. What does “improved transparency” really mean? What is a miscarriage certificate worth compared with an injection of cash into care services and research?

Women have been shouting about this for eons, and the fact we’ve only just been listened to speaks to a deeply entrenched sexism in society that continues to dismiss our problems and place men's experience at the forefront. The government’s ambition is for the NHS to “consider women’s needs specifically and by default” and for women to be able to“access services that meet their reproductive health needs throughout their lives”. The fact this is not the norm is utterly staggering.

While some progress is obviously an improvement on none, women need far more than this. They need referrals to consultants much sooner – we can’t be expected to wait until the next generation of doctors has graduated to have serious health concerns addressed. Sexism within NHS ranks must be stamped out, from misogyny among doctors, to having access to proper menstrual care from the off. Hormonal contraception must no longer be the main go-to – and funding into the male alternative needs to be accelerated. Women should not have to experience three miscarriages or six months of fertility struggles before being eligible for investigation. The list goes on.

This strategy is a drop in the ocean of what women need to bring them to an equal footing with men in the eyes of medicine. And the fact it’s needed at all should be a major wake up call and spark real and dramatic change. Until then, it’s little more than lip service.

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