Women in the UK are becoming increasingly vocal about the challenges they face in their healthcare and the unjust variation in access to services. When the Government opened their consultation to inform a Women’s Health Strategy in Spring 2021, over 110,000 respondents took the opportunity to make it known that the system does not work for them. Following years of campaigning, it comes as no surprise to women and those in the women’s health community that an overwhelming 84% of people felt their voices are simply not being heard when they seek health care.
By demonstrating an interest in women’s voices and their experiences, recognising failures in the system, and committing to developing a Women’s Health strategy, the Government has taken a positive initial step, albeit an ambitious one. There is no disease-specific focus and no target patient population, unlike other policy areas. This challenge affects 51% of our population and includes natural, life course events that women have, for many years, been told to just live with. With publication of the strategy imminent, the Government now need to demonstrate that they are willing to not only listen to women’s voices but to implement action based on what they are saying.
Women continue to face challenges when it comes to choices about their own bodies. Ongoing variation in access to abortion care, a full range of contraceptive choice, and a holistic range of menopause treatment options, all impact on women’s freedom to choose the treatments that work best for them. The Government’s commitment to prioritising the menopause in the upcoming strategy and cutting prescription costs for Hormone Replacement Therapies (HRT) in response to the Menopause Revolution campaign is hopeful. However, the Government’s initial attempt to reverse progress made in at-home abortion during the pandemic despite women citing a clear preference for this to continue, suggests more need to be done to prioritise women’s voices, choices and rights in practice.
In addition to not being heard, a fragmented system and the pandemic backlog have resulted in services that are increasingly difficult to navigate, leading to the most vulnerable falling through the cracks. Upcoming system reforms focusing on the integration of care offer opportunities to take a patient centered approach and reduce inequalities in outcomes. The Government is also expected to advocate for the establishment of ‘women’s health hubs’, which aim to enable access to all required care in a one-stop shop, in line with calls from advocates including the Primary Care Women’s Health Forum and Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. Despite the promise of better integration locally, fragmentation is continuing at a national level. Abortion has been removed from the Women’s Health Strategy and is expected to feature in the upcoming Sexual Health Strategy. With a wider interest in health inequalities, the Government must recognise the connection between these elements of healthcare and align planning nationally to support local areas to integrate care.
Committing to a women’s health strategy is a promising step in the right direction for this Government and has offered women long overdue hope. Action in response to prominent campaigns, such as the Menopause Revolution, to change the way women can interact with the system allow us to believe that the challenges women have faced for far too long could be overcome within their lifetime.
The Government have a real opportunity to ensure women have their voices heard. To do this, they must recognise the challenges they face, capitalise on system reforms to integrate care, collaborate with the women’s health community, and most importantly, commit to funding appropriate and immediate action. In a health system and economy designed by and for men, the time for meaningful, impactful change, is now.