#InspireInclusion: Bridging data disparities to empower women from ethnic minorities in the UK

Posted on: March 8th, 2024 by Morgan Arnold

Despite advancements, data in healthcare, (or the lack of it) consistently show that women face unique challenges in accessing quality care and are disproportionately affected by health inequalities, especially women from ethnic minorities. This International Women’s Day (IWD), MHP explores the importance of addressing the gender health gap to empower women, especially those from ethnic minorities and foster inclusive practices, aligning with the spirit of International Women’s Day. 

In September 2023, the charity Wellbeing of Women, in association with MHP Group, convened the ‘Health Collective’ – a group of grassroots organisations passionate and committed to improving women’s health for all women, especially those from marginalised backgrounds. This Health Collective united to ensure improved inclusivity and outcomes in healthcare for Black women and other ethnic minorities. 

As we celebrate International Women’s Day in 2024 under the theme of “inspiring inclusion,” it is crucial to address and recognise the persistent disparities in healthcare access and outcomes that women face. Currently, the UK has the widest gender health gap in the G20 and the twelfth largest globally. 

A recent report published by McKinsey, entitled ‘Closing the women’s health gap: a $1 trillion opportunity to improve lives and economies revealed that in Canada and the UK, just 5.9 percent of grants between 2009-2020 went to research that looked at female-specific outcomes or women’s health. The data for research grants into women’s health from ethnic minorities is not readily available but is assumed to be drastically lower than 5.9 percent. In the UK, less than 2.5 percent of publicly funded research goes into reproductive health. It is very difficult to #inspireinclusion when these gaps in data exist.  

Dr Aziza Sesay, GP educator, Honorary Senior Clinical lecturer, host, speaker, health content creator and member of the Health Collective, said: 

“The theme for International Women’s Day, which is ‘inspiring inclusion’, is not about tokenism. Rather, it’s about thoroughly examining systems and working to improve them in order to benefit everyone. Data plays a crucial role in ensuring better outcomes for women, but often the methods of collecting this data are not accessible to all and can lead to biased results. The Health Collective, comprised of grassroots organisations, is essential in bridging gaps in these methods and building trust, while also amplifying the voices and expanding the reach of organisations already making a positive impact that can lead to better outcomes.” 

Health Inequalities Among Women from Ethnic Minorities: 

Women from ethnic minorities in the UK experience a multitude of health inequalities. In their report, the Health Collective identified that these range from higher rates of maternal mortality to increased prevalence of certain chronic conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. These disparities are influenced by various factors, including socioeconomic status, language barriers, and systemic racism within the healthcare system.  

The report identified barriers marginalised groups are facing in accessing women’s health services and highlights inadequate gathering of health data as a barrier. This results in the emergence of significant evidence discrepancies in vital domains such as maternal mortality. Women are frequently more likely to be misdiagnosed and wrongly prescribed medicines due to the fact that they are underrepresented in medical research. Consequently, policies and interventions formulated on incomplete information fail to address underlying inequities. For example, women are 50 percent more likely to get an initial wrong diagnosis when they’re having a heart attack as ‘common symptoms’ are based off research which is reliant on the male experience. Additionally, whilst 1 in 10 women in the UK suffer from endometriosis, it takes around seven and a half years to get a diagnosis and women are frequently misdiagnosed due to the lack of research on this condition.  

Empowering Women Through Data-Driven Interventions: 

Data-driven interventions play a crucial role in empowering women from ethnic minorities to take control of their health and well-being. By leveraging data to identify high-risk populations, tailor interventions to specific cultural contexts, and monitor progress over time, healthcare providers can deliver more effective and equitable care. Furthermore, involving women, especially those from ethnic minorities in the co-design and implementation of healthcare initiatives ensures that services are appropriate and impactful for all, leading to improved outcomes and responsive healthcare services. 

The start of this year has brought some promising advancements and initiatives in this area. At the Women’s Health Summit, the Health Secretary, Rt Hon Victoria Atkins MP, said that in Britain, Black women are almost three times more likely to die whilst giving birth or shortly after than white women. Atkins also said that women of Asian ethnic backgrounds are 1.67 times more likely to die whilst giving birth or shortly after than white women.  Describing these figures as completely unacceptable, the Health Secretary announced the launch of the first ‘Research Challenge’ worth £50 million to tackle and address these maternity disparities from the National Institute for Health and Care Research. In short, the existence of such data paves the way for change.  

Similar schemes by industry are needed to ensure consistent and regular funding for grassroots organisations, diversity in clinical trials and providing resources to drive research, innovation and development. By investing in these programmes, industry can help change the paradigm of women’s health and ensure better healthcare outcomes for all. 

Conclusion: 

Despite positive movements, it is clear that progress is slow. Hologic, a leading innovator in women’s health, in their recent report and call to action, have concluded that women’s health is in a state of emergency, not just in the UK but globally. Data serves as a critical tool for understanding and addressing health disparities. Therefore, improving available data and ensuring inclusion in healthcare research are essential steps towards promoting inclusive healthcare practices.  

As we celebrate International Women’s Day in 2024, we must reaffirm the commitment to inspiring inclusion in healthcare by addressing data disparities and health inequalities among women and especially women from ethnic minorities in the UK. Industry, Government and health systems need to work together to ensure that the health of women is prioritised. By harnessing the power of data to inform policy and practice, fostering cultural competence within healthcare systems, and empowering women to actively participate in their own care, we can create a more equitable and inclusive healthcare landscape for all women, regardless of ethnicity or background.  

IWD 2023: Embracing Equity through collective activism

Posted on: March 8th, 2023 by Morgan Arnold

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is embracing equity, placing the spotlight on the need to go beyond equal opportunities and understand the differences in individual circumstances. When it comes to health, this means that all women should be equipped to make informed decisions about their own health and have equitable access to services to achieve their full health potential. In July 2022, the Government’s Women’s Health Strategy committed to delivering equity through addressing the disparities in health outcomes between women.

Nine months on, changes are starting to happen, with cuts to prescription costs for hormone replacement therapies (HRT) coming into effect on 1 April this year. The tone of conversation has also changed, with an exponential rise of the impact of social influencers in championing women’s health issues, including sexual and reproductive health and the impact of broader health conditions on women. Yet, there is still much to do. The slow progress in addressing the inequities highlighted in the Women’s Health Strategy has been exacerbated by the scrapping of the Government’s Health Disparities paper.  

In light of this, where are we now?  

The spiralling cost of living crisis, combined with the escalating NHS crisis, is having a widespread impact across the UK, considerably affecting those who are already marginalised in society. Recent research, conducted by Health Watch England, revealed that women are being disproportionately affected by the current crises in various areas such as employment, household responsibilities and social security.  Underpinning this is the subsequent health impact of difficult spending decisions, with a recent survey shared by Medscape UK highlighting that the Cost of Living crisis is now affecting eight out of ten women’s physical and mental health. In this survey alongside others, the women identified as the most affected are those from ethnic minority groups, less affluent areas, the LGBTQ+ community and those living with disabilities – all of which were a key focus in the Disparities in Health Outcomes section in the Women’s Health Strategy.  

Last Spring, in recognition of International Women’s Day, MHP Group launched a critical report: ‘Women’s Health: Making Choice in Sexual and Reproductive Health a Reality. The Report explored the reality of a woman’s ability to access treatment and innovation that would improve her sexual and reproductive wellbeing and grant greater reproductive autonomy. It demonstrated why women’s reproductive health issues need to be much higher on government agendas – an issue that we’ve now seen reflected in the Women’s Health Strategy. The Government has made various pledges to raise this issue on the national agenda, including the grant fund to support women’s reproductive health in the workplace. Additionally, the Women’s Health Strategy recognised the findings of the MBRRACE-UK report that showed: “women and babies of black or Asian ethnicity or those living in the most deprived areas are more likely to die from causes linked to pregnancy and birth, compared with women living in the least deprived areas”.

One of the key pledges in the Women’s Health Strategy was to ensure maternity services become safer, providing every woman with access to information to enable them to make decisions about care. Recent studies suggest that this ambition is yet to be realised. The combined NHS and Cost of Living crises have inevitably contributed to a decrease in the quality of, and access to, maternity services, despite the £2.45 million pledged by the Government in July 2021 to improve safety in maternity services. Women are missing important antenatal scans due to cost of travel; 39% of maternity units across England have been found to provide substandard care; and a staggering 40% of women did not receive help from a member of staff during labour and birth. All of this has led maternal health specialist and a director at the WHO, Dr Natasha Azzopardi-Muscat, to anticipate that the Cost of Living crisis will continue to impact Britain’s already concerning rates of maternal deaths as more women are pushed into poverty. And there will be a greater need to focus on the issue of inequity, with antenatal services continuing to fail women from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds and those living in deprived areas.  

So, what needs to change to champion equity for women’s health? 

The shift in policy and support for wider access to HRT without doubt benefited from the profile and influence of leading female celebrities using their platforms to push for change. People such as Davina McCall, Louise Minchin and Gaby Roslin, used their professional and social platforms to tell their stories and raise awareness of the true impact of the menopause on women’s lives. But the support of political voices, including Carolyn Harris MP, alongside them also provided greater support on raising public awareness and driving political action.  

But that is just one part of the solution to achieving health equity for women. The Women’s Health Strategy sets out clear ambitions: a call for increased investment, funding, education and recognition of the impact of specific health issues affecting women is essential but not yet achieved. As a result, the recent momentum championing access to menopause treatments for women demonstrates that, while Government action is still required, the rising role of influencers and activists in the ‘Networked Age’ offers a powerful mechanism to deliver change and action around women’s health issues and inequity.  

Working in tandem with these efforts, the private sector is already playing a vital role in affecting change by supporting investment and research in innovation and technology across a range of women’s health categories, including fertility, pregnancy, menopause and period poverty.   

Achieving the International Women’s Day’s ambition of Embracing Equity is reliant on collective activism. The slow advancement in realising change set out in the Women’s Health Strategy, combined with the stop-start-stop approach to the Government’s Health Disparities paper, emphasises the need to go beyond government stakeholders to address inequities, as well as inequalities, among women. The solution lies in greater support from allies – not just women – who are willing to speak up and play their part in the continued drive for equity in health. And we need the continued investment and commitment of industry to ensure equity for all women is truly at the heart of achieving vital change.