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.
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.
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.
By Bella Smith
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