It goes without saying that 2021 has been a(nother) tumultuous year (we have high hopes for you, 2022!). But the turbulence caused by COVID has also been a catalyst for change across many areas, especially health. Entrenched societal issues have suddenly been laid bare through the impact of COVID and are now too difficult, too impactful, to ignore. One of the most prominent issues thrust into the spotlight has been health inequalities. While the term covers a myriad of challenges across race, culture, gender and geography to name but a few, as we look to 2022, one of the publications aiming to make a positive impact, and one to keep a close watch on, is the first ever Women’s Health Strategy.
The strategy had a series of false starts, with a consultation launched to coincide with the 2021 International Women’s Day following an understandable delay from 2020. This was extended for a few weeks due to underrepresentation of key voices, including 16-18 year olds, over 50 year olds and women from Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. However, the Government did manage to publish its Vision for Women’s Health before Christmas and will follow up with the Strategy in spring.
In the Vision, the emphasis on the need to better support those health issues that most women face purely because of the life course of being a woman was sobering. Of a substantial list of issues proposed, the survey, which saw over 110,000 responses, including around 97,000 from individuals, called out reproductive and post-reproductive health as critical areas to tackle, alongside healthy ageing and long-term conditions, mental health and the health impacts of violence against women.
It reported that a staggering 84 per cent of respondents had said there had been instances in which they had not been listened to by their healthcare professionals. In particular it noted those times where pain is the main symptom, “being told that heavy and painful periods are ‘normal’ or that the woman will ‘grow out of them’”. It also highlighted the consistent story that women had to persistently advocate for themselves and push for further investigation. Sadly, this will come as no surprise to the many women who have either experienced heavy periods or conditions such as endometriosis or polycystic ovaries. And for those that us that haven’t – we will have friends who have.
Its focus on the continued taboo and stigma surrounding ‘female specific issues’ shouts loud and clear about the need for more open communication, more awareness and more recognition of the reality and impact of these ‘life factors’ from both the health system, and society as a whole. It also firmly lays down the imperative to, importantly, believe but also respond to women’s needs.
To fully ensure women have equal opportunity to the best health outcomes, alongside system and societal changes, health innovations are critical. Treatments to support reproductive and post-reproductive health, from contraception to endometriosis to the menopause can have a substantial impact on how women interact in society and our ability to play a role in the economy. Whilst we have seen dramatic advances in treatments for many disease areas over the last few decades, innovation in the reproductive and post-reproductive sphere has not always kept pace. The Vision highlighted a current lack of research into women’s health issues and, in particular, a need for more research into female-specific issues, such as endometriosis and the menopause.
At MHP Mischief we have commissioned our own research looking into what innovation breakthroughs are accelerating investment in this market, and what market-shaping policy change, and indeed broader societal shifts, need to happen to ensure all women benefit from greater choice and control over issues specific to their reproductive and post-reproductive health. We will also be looking at how advancements in the UK can be expanded across other geographies and what equitable access could mean for women all over the world. We will be sharing our findings in early spring so watch this space!
There are definitely indications that the tide is turning. 2021 saw a landmark development with the first over-the-counter (OTC) contraceptive pill – a reclassification that is one of the biggest revolutions in women’s health in the 60 years since The Pill launched. Reproductive health is also reported to be on track to hold a leading market share of the women’s health industry, with an estimated global worth of $171billion by 2027, with Femtech start-ups and tech innovators driving the acceleration of new and improved solutions to support women. In fact, 2021 was an important year in women’s health for many reasons – seeing small but important shifts across the political and health spectrum. Along with the OTC classification, the tampon tax was abolished on 1st January and the announcement to reduce Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) charges came in October – but there is still so much more to do.
So if 2021 posed the question on what needs to happen next, 2022 might be the year where women’s health starts to get some answers. As Maria Caulfield MP, the newly announced women’s health ambassador said: ‘It is time to re-set the dial on women’s health’. We can’t wait to see what this year brings.