In July 2022, Department of Health and Social Care presented its first Women’s Health Strategy for England. Based on a consultation with more than 100,000 people across the country, the strategy, explored the disparities of care across England, the experiences of women and laid out ambitious plans for the next decade of healthcare for women and girls.
Women were promised not only that the fragmented health systems would be fixed, but that decades of gender health inequality, particularly for women from minority ethnic and lower socio-economic groups, would be addressed. Finally, women would have a voice and the NHS would listen.
An early achievement was the appointment of the first ever Women’s Health Ambassador, with Professor Dame Lesley Regan, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Imperial College London appointed to the role. Bringing a raft of expertise spanning a 42-year career in women’s health, Dame Lesley would be “driving forward the system-level changes needed to close the gender health gap and eradicate deep seated biases”.
Among the recommendations of the Women’s Health Strategy were several priority areas, these included:
menstrual health and gynaecological conditions
fertility, pregnancy, pregnancy loss, maternity care, and postnatal support
mental health and wellbeing
the health impacts of violence against women and girls
healthy ageing and long-term conditions
A year on from the launch of the Women’s Health Strategy, we want to know about its progress. Has there been investment and has it made a difference to women’s lives? Have services improved? Are women’s voices finally being heard?
Women’s health is a workplace priority
A key finding of the consultation was that: “A lack of support, awareness and understanding of health conditions specific to women can be harmful not only to the health and happiness of women, but the health of the economy”. So, it’s no surprise that tackling women’s health in the workplace has been a priority during the first year of the strategy.
£1.97m awarded to boost women’s workplace health
At the end of 2022, over £1.97m was awarded to 16 organisations across England, to support and encourage innovative, high-quality schemes that improve the health of women in the workplace.
Organisations, including Endometriosis UK, The Eve Appeal and Wellbeing of Women will use the cash to provide holistic support to help women with reproductive health issues remain in and return to the workplace.
We have a new Menopause Employment Champion
In March 2023, Helen Tomlinson was appointed as the first ever Menopause Employment Champion. As part of the voluntary role, Helen will encourage employers to develop menopause policies and support to help women stay and progress in work.
About her appointment, Helen said: “Less than a quarter of UK businesses currently have a menopause policy, but as I take on this role, I am determined that my generation of women in work will break the menopause taboo and have confidence that their health is valued.”
A new standard for women’s health in the workplace
Finally, on May 31 2023, a new standard for businesses on menstruation, menstrual health and menopause in the workplace was published by the British Standards Institution (BSI).
The guidance outlines how businesses can identify misconceptions about menopause and developing policies and practices that support women to stay in work.
Better access to health services for women
Providing better access to services and enabling faster health interventions is a key part of the government’s strategy and crucial to tackling women’s health inequality.
Expansion of Women’s Health Hubs
In March 2023, the government announced an investment of £25m to accelerate the development of Women’s Health Hubs across the country over the next two years.
Women’s Health Hubs already exist in Liverpool, Manchester and North Hampshire and it’s hoped that rolling them out across the country will provide women with tailored care close to home.
The funding comes at a time when women’s health issues are making headlines. Some women are facing waits of up to more than a year to be referred for specialist menopause treatment on the NHS. And a Care Quality Commission review of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service found that: “Women did not always receive care in a timely way to meet their needs”.
HRT is cheaper, but supply issues persist
Rolled out in April 2023, the new hormone replacement therapy (HRT) prescription prepayment certificate (PPC) reduces prescription costs to just £19.30 a year. Great news for the thousands of women who rely on HRT.
There are 43 HRT treatments, including patches, tablets and topical preparations, currently eligible for the certificate, which can be bought online or from some pharmacies. Over 37,700 certificates have already been purchased.
After supply issues throughout 2022, the HRT shortage seems to be levelling off. As of June 2023 there are just two serious shortage protocols in place, one for Utrogestan 100mg capsules and the second for Progynova 100 microgram patches.
Minister for the Women’s Health Strategy, Maria Caulfield, said: “We continue working to help ensure continuity of supply – which is a key part of increasing support for menopausal and pre-menopausal women and improving their quality of life.”
The NHS website is getting an overhaul
To make it as easy as possible for women to access the services they need the government wants to “transform the NHS website into a world-class, first port of call for women’s health information by updating existing content and adding new pages”. While we haven’t seen any large-scale changes yet, it’s thought that a dedicated area for women’s health will be going live soon.
It comes at a time when young women are increasingly turning to social media for health information. The NHS England website hit the news recently when it was revealed that the condition adenomyosis, which affects 1 in 10 women, does not have a dedicated page on the site. During an interview with presenter and adenomyosis sufferer Naga Munchetty, Women’s Health Ambassador Professor Dame Lesley Regan went so far as to say that the NHS was failing some women.
By contrast, NHS Inform, the Scottish version of the NHS England site does have a web page on the condition, as well as a dedicated women’s health platform. Scotland released its own Women’s Health Plan in August 2021 – almost a year before the England plan was published.
Women’s Health Minister Jenni Minto told Thrive:
“Women’s Health is one the Scottish Government’s key priorities. Scotland was the first country in the UK to publish a Women’s Health Plan – which aims to raise awareness around women’s health, improve access to healthcare and reduce health inequalities for women and girls.
What’s next for the Women’s Health Strategy?
In publishing a Women’s Health Strategy, the Department of Health and Social Care has shown itself to be aware of long-standing inequalities and committed to much-needed improvements in women’s healthcare in England. But while all progress improving women’s access to and experience of the health system is to be applauded, there’s still a long way to go before decades of health inequality are truly balanced out.
Women continue to experience exceptionally long waiting times and disparities of care, particularly if they’re from minority ethnic and lower socio-economic backgrounds. For example, if you’re Black, Asian, or from another ethnic minority group, you’re even less likely to be included in medical research than a White woman. And you’re four times more likely to die in childbirth if you’re Black. These stark facts highlight the huge scale of change required to level gender health inequalities.
It is vital that the strategy reaches all women and girls in the United Kingdom, and that will take time. In July 2022, Welsh Government published a Women’s and Girl’s Health Quality Statement and a Women’s Health Plan is currently in development. Northern Ireland has yet to turn its attention to women’s health and is currently the only region in the UK without an active maternity strategy.
The early achievements across England and Scotland have been promising but some problems are more easily fixed than others. Let’s hope the hard work and change continues.
Kerry is a Senior Editor at Thrive. She is adept in planning and delivering successful projects for a range of audiences and brands, and developing messages that have the power to really resonate.
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