The promise for women’s health in England

Emily Walther

On Saturday 28 May, the International Day of Action for Women’s Health will demonstrate that #WomensHealthMatters.  This year, the theme is #ResistAndPersist amid crises and global uncertainty.

A 2018 Public Health England (PHE) survey showed that 31% of women experience severe reproductive health problems during their lifetime, but less than half of those seek help.  These may be related to contraception, endometriosis, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), periods, fertility, or a variety of other concerns which unless are investigated, go undiagnosed and untreated.  In another recent government survey, 74% thought that the COVID-19 pandemic had a negative effect on women’s access to healthcare services.  However, now that the pandemic has seemingly come to an end here in England, the lack of funding, time, and political priority around women’s health must be addressed.

Some countries, such as Indonesia, Zambia and more recently Spain, have proposed menstrual leave for women at work.  But this is not the case in the UK, and the UK government does not consider other issues such as endometriosis, fertility and pregnancy loss or menopause as health issues which merit specific workplace guidance.  Many women here in the UK mask health issues related to their sexual and reproductive health, particularly in the workplace, despite making up 51% of the population and 47% of the workforce.  For example, women over 50 are now the fastest growing demographic in the workplace, but around 900,000 women have quit their jobs due to the menopause, despite often not officially citing this as the reason.

However, things might be beginning to change.  On 13 May the government announced that a grant fund is to be launched to support women’s reproductive health in the workplace.  This would mean women experiencing menstrual and gynaecological conditions, menopause, fertility issues, miscarriage or pregnancy loss will be supported at work by a multi-million-pound scheme to voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) organisations.   The funding will support initiatives providing training for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) which are unlikely to already provide support internally by signposting to clinical services and helping them to address personal and workplace barriers to improve their wellbeing.  Applications can be submitted from May to August this year and will aim to reduce health inequalities both in the workplace and in society.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid also recently stated that he intended to sign the Menopause Workforce Pledge.  The Pledge by Wellbeing of Women, partnered with Hello! Magazine and supported by Bupa, calls on employers to sign-up and take action to ensure that people going through menopause are supported in the workplace.  Amazingly, the campaign and pledge have already received support from HRH Sophie Countess of Wessex, Ambassadors Baroness Karren Brady and Carol Vorderman, Lord Karan Bilimoria, Caroline Nokes MP and Carolyn Harris MP.

In addition, last year from March to June, the UK government launched a call for evidence to collect views on women’s health and women’s experiences of the healthcare system in England to inform the first-ever government-led Women’s Health Strategy.  In December 2021, Our Vision for the Women’s Health Strategy for England report was published which sets out the government’s vision for a new healthcare system ‘prioritising care on the basis of clinical need and not of gender’.  Nearly 100,000 people over the age of 16 in England responded to share their experiences as women; experiences of a female family member friend or partner; or their experiences as a health or care professional.  The top five issues that respondents called on the Department of Health to prioritise were gynaecological conditions (63%); fertility, pregnancy, pregnancy loss and postnatal support (55%); menopause (48%); menstrual health (47%); and mental health (39%).

The highly anticipated Women’s Health Strategy promises to focus on women’s health throughout their lifetime instead of interventions for a single condition, often at a single life stage.  The strategy will aim to promote women’s voices; improve healthcare policies, services, research, and data; provide greater support for women’s health in the workplace; and increase information and education.

It is vitally important that women feel supported at work, in society and by the health care system, and that taboos are broken down through open conversation.  These recent initiatives by the government show that there have been numerous promises made in recent months, but this is not enough.  We must resist complacency and persist in continuing to demand action.