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Why it’s in everyone’s interest the Women’s Health Strategy for England succeeds

Timed to coincide with International Women’s Day, the Government’s Women’s Health Strategy for England landed at a moment of national contemplation about women’s place in society more generally, following the murder of Sarah Everard. In her latest blog, Hanover Health’s Jennifer Blainey breaks down the strategy and considers what needs to happen for it to succeed.

By Jennifer Blainey, Director, Hanover Health

By creating England’s first Women’s Health Strategy, the Government has signalled its intention to take seriously the healthcare needs of women and crucially, make ordinary women central in these discussions. If this strategy is to succeed it will need to ensure it does more than listen but delivers a plan that ensures 51% of the population is properly represented in clinical trials and service design. In a society which is so interconnected it is in everyone’s interests to have women’s health improved, not just for women themselves.

In the press release accompanying the consultation Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, stated, ‘For generations women have lived with a healthcare system that is mostly designed for men, by men’. Caroline Criado-Perez in her book “Invisible Women” captured multiple examples of how the world, including healthcare, is designed for men. Her book points out that as we move towards a world led by data, women are missing from the sources being used to inform those datasets. An article in the British Medical Journal (BMJ)1 in October 2020 found:

The International Council for Harmonisation of Technical Requirements for Pharmaceuticals for Human Use has not recognised the need for specific, standalone guidelines on the inclusion of women, continuing to refer to women as a special subgroup to be considered when appropriate. Journals inconsistently publish sex disaggregated data on drug efficacy, safety, and toxicity, and industry rarely reports sex or gender differences on product labels. Fragmented action and resistance perpetuates and extends women's exclusion from timely, safe, and quality of life enhancing therapeutic options across their lives.

It would be a huge leap forward if the Health Strategy for England could improve the representation of women in pharmaceutical research. This is particularly pertinent now the pandemic has awoken governments to the public health and economic resilience strong data can provide. As countries turn to dealing with “long Covid”, the term for a range of longer-term health issues suffered by those who have had the virus, which seems to disproportionately effect women,2 more diverse clinical trials will be vital.

The Health Secretary’s decision to create a Women’s Health Strategy for England is the right one. It is even better that it seeks input from individual women and groups to inform how it develops through its public survey. What has become clear over the last year is that people from different backgrounds experience our public services differently. That experience cannot be represented and understood without seeking counsel from a broad range of service users.

The importance of getting this right also shouldn’t be underestimated. Earlier this year a report found black women are still four times more likely to die in childbirth or pregnancy than white women in the UK.3 The Eve Appeal, a charity for gynaecological cancers, found in a survey of healthcare professionals that 47% agreed that women not knowing the correct terminology for their reproductive anatomy could lead to delayed diagnosis of a gynaecological cancer.4 Menopausal women are now the fastest growing demographic in the workplace yet one in four considers leaving work due to the symptoms.5

This strategy isn’t just a nice to have, a way for the Government to appeal to women voters. Women are unnecessarily dying in childbirth or from cancers they were too embarrassed to discuss. Women are leaving the workforce because they don’t understand a natural though challenging part of ageing. All of this is bad for the economy and wider society. The pandemic has demonstrated in an all too clear manner how interconnected we all are in society. No woman or man is an island.

If this strategy can go some way to addressing problems in public services and public attitudes to women’s health, including in the workplace, then that will bring benefits to everyone. The mother who is alive to look after her child. The woman who survives because they caught her cancer early because she had the confidence and language to explain her symptoms. The woman who is supported by her employer through all of the life stages of womanhood. More effective medicines and medical interventions created because women were included in clinical trials.

The Women’s Health Strategy might be aimed at addressing long overdue issues for 51% of the population but 100% of society stands to benefit from it. It has never been a man’s world, let’s hope this strategy helps to shape our public services and society to reflect that fact.

[1] https://www.bmj.com/content/371/bmj.m3808
[2] https://swhr.org/long-covid-the-impact-on-women-and-ongoing-research/
[3] https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/jan/15/black-women-in-the-uk-four-times-more-likely-to-die-in-pregnancy-or-childbirth
[4] https://eveappeal.org.uk/news-awareness/top-tips-for-talking-gynae/
[5] https://menopauseintheworkplace.co.uk/menopause-at-work/menopause-and-work-its-important

7th April 2021

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