Women and girls up and down the country are set to benefit from better healthcare after the Government published the first ever Women’s Health Strategy for England.
The strategy has been published following the completion of the call for evidence that prompted almost 100,000 responses from individuals across England, detailing their experiences in the health sector and how it could be improved.
By setting out a range of key commitments, the strategy aims to tackle deep-seated systemic issues within the health and care industry, and ultimately reset the way the health and care system listens to women. Those key commitments include:
- New research and data gathering.
- The expansion of women’s health-focused education and training for incoming doctors.
- Improvements to fertility services.
- Ensuring women have access to high-quality health information.
- Updating guidance for female-specific health conditions like endometriosis to ensure the latest evidence and advice is being used in treatment.
Health and Social Care Secretary, Steve Barclay, said: “Our health and care system only works if it works for everyone. It is not right that 51% of our population are disadvantaged in accessing the care they need, simply because of their sex.
“The publication of this strategy is a landmark moment in addressing entrenched inequalities and improving the health and wellbeing of women across the country.”
Women have a higher life expectancy than men, and yet spend more of their life in ill-health, often restricting their ability to work and participate in day-to-day activities. Levelling out this health inequality will not only benefit the health and wellbeing of women, it will also boost the economy too.
Responses from the call for evidence highlighted a need for a greater focus on women-specific health conditions, including fertility and pregnancy loss, and gynaecological conditions like endometriosis that affects one in 10 women.
Supporting progress already underway in these areas, the strategy will:
- Provide a new investment of £10 million for a breast screening programme, which will provide 25 new mobile breast screening units to be targeted at areas with the greatest challenges in uptake and coverage. This will:
- Provide extra capacity for services to recover from the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
- Boost uptake of screening in areas where attendance is low.
- Tackle health disparities.
- Contribute towards higher early diagnosis rates in line with the NHS Long Term Plan.
- Remove additional barriers to IVF for female same-sex couples. There will no longer be a requirement for them to pay for artificial insemination to prove their fertility status and NHS treatment for female same-sex couples will start with 6 cycles of artificial insemination, prior to accessing IVF services, if necessary.
- Improve transparency on provision and availability of IVF so prospective parents can see how their local area performs to tackle the ‘postcode lottery’ in access to IVF treatment.
- Recognise parents who have lost a child before 24 weeks through the introduction of a pregnancy loss certificate in England.
- Ensure specialist endometriosis services have the most up-to-date evidence and advice by updating the service specification for severe endometriosis, which defines the standards of care patients can expect. This sits alongside the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) review of its guideline on endometriosis.
The call for evidence also revealed that many women feel they are not listened to, and that there was a distinct lack of understanding and awareness amongst some health professionals about women-specific medical conditions. Addressing this, the strategy commits to:
- Commissioning urgent research by the National Institute for Health and Care Research into healthcare professionals’ experiences of listening to women in primary care, with a focus on menstrual and gynaecological symptoms to inform policy to ensure women’s voices are heard.
- Introducing specific teaching and assessments on women’s health in undergraduate curricula for all graduating medical students from 2024 to 2025 and for all incoming doctors.
- Major investment via the NIHR into research on women’s health issues, including a new policy research unit on reproductive health, and plans to:
- Address data gaps.
- Identify barriers to women participating in research.
- Improve the quality of data collected by the NHS – this will include running a new reproductive health experience survey every 2 years to continue to listen to women and gather insight on their experiences of services, including for contraception and menopause.
Responses from the call for evidence also noted the need for an expansion of information and educational resources for women and health professionals, as well as more synchronisation in the way care is delivered, making it as simple as possible for women to access the care they need.
As a result, the strategy also commits to:
- Transforming the NHS website into a world-class, first port of call for women’s health information by updating existing content and adding new pages – including on adenomyosis, a gynaecological condition where endometrial tissue grows into the muscle of the uterus – and bringing together third-party new and existing content.
- Encouraging the expansion of Women’s Health Hubs around the country and other models of ‘one-stop clinics’, bringing essential women’s services together to support women to maintain good health and drive efficiency in the NHS, helping clinicians as they work to tackle the COVID backlogs.
- Publishing a definition of trauma-informed practice for use in the health sector and encouraging its adoption in health settings, to help address barriers to accessing services that people affected by trauma – such as domestic violence or psychological abuse – can experience, ensuring they can access the care they need.
Women’s Health Ambassador, Dame Lesley Regan, said: “Having spent my career looking after women, I am deeply aware of the need for a women’s health strategy that empowers both women and clinicians to tackle the gender health gap.
“We need to make it as easy as possible for women to access the services they need, to keep girls in school and women in the workplace, ensuring every woman has the opportunity to live her life to her fullest potential.
“This strategy is a major step in the right direction, listening to the concerns of women, professionals and other organisations to tackle some of the deep-rooted issues that we know exist.
“Feedback from thousands of women across the country revealed that they feel their voices were not always listened to, and there was a lack of understanding or awareness among some medical professionals about health conditions which affect women.”
More information about the new strategy can be found here.