Why have women health issues been neglected in healthcare and research institutions?
Significant and ground-breaking medical, scientific, and technological advancements in the last few decades have greatly contributed to improvements in overall health, life expectancy and quality of life. Despite these developments, women’s health issues are often under-researched and underfunded, thus becoming overlooked and neglected in all areas of life, including education, employment, the media, and society at large. This can be attributed to the deeply rooted sexism within healthcare systems, enabling men in positions of power to make clinical and medical decisions surrounding women’s health and shape the societal education and awareness (or lack thereof) on conditions affecting women.
This lack of knowledge and focus on women’s health issues have been amplified by the continued lack of female enrolment in clinical trials. In the US, the National Institutes of Health did not require female enrolment in trials until 1993 under the pretext that women’s bodies are ‘complex’. To this day, an overwhelming number of studies heavily recruit men. For many decades, male researchers have written publications based only on male subjects, with the belief that males are the standard and females are the aberration due to hormonal fluctuations during menstrual cycles.
Historically, large grant-giving agencies have also not prioritised women’s health because men seated on the panel were unaware of reproductive health research and assigned funding to conditions affecting either men and women or just men. The taboo surrounding women’s health also poses a barrier to the representation of women’s conditions in healthcare; in both eastern and western societies, women themselves shy away from talking about menstruation, menopause and other issues affecting women. Consequently, the lens through which society perceives women’s health issues is myopic and uninformed.
With more funding, research and focus, the increased knowledge and information surrounding women’s health will enhance medical and clinical prioritisation in this field. Until then, women will continue to be ignored and dismissed when approaching medical professionals about their symptoms and health concerns. Women of colour and LGBTQ+ women are particularly disadvantaged.
The politics surrounding women’s health
Women’s health conditions are treated with an ever-evolving political and health policy landscape, which has predominantly favoured the research and treatment of conditions affecting men. A lack of political concern, funding and engagement for conditions affecting women (or that affect both men and women but impact women differently) is undeniable. The NHS Long Term Plan, published in 2019, describes continued improvements in maternity and neonatal services, as well as breast cancer services, for women, especially those from Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. It also highlights the need for ‘stronger NHS action on health inequalities between men and women, and between women of different socioeconomic backgrounds.
However, the focus on other prevailing women’s health conditions, such as endometriosis (which affects roughly 10% of reproductive age women and girls globally), ovarian and cervical cancer, autoimmune diseases, menopause, anaemia, and many more such issues, receive relatively little funding and attention. In fact, there is no mention of these issues in the NHS Long Term Plan. Conditions affecting both men and women, such as heart disease, osteoporosis, stroke, urinary incontinence, are known to affect women differently than men, yet these issues are also not addressed at governmental policymaking, as well as a research and clinical, level. Only issues directly related to a woman’s ability to procreate are seemingly prioritised, whereas a woman’s health and care needs across her entire life are neglected. This clearly reveals the long-standing institutionalised sexism that has led to policymakers disregarding the health of half of our population. The health inequalities not just between men and women, but also between women from high- and low-income countries, are vast and also need addressing.
The impact of COVID-19 on women’s health
The COVID-19 pandemic has also had a disproportionate impact on women’s health globally. For example, most nurses and healthcare professionals in Europe are women, but personal protective equipment (PPE) is sized for men. The socio-economic fallout from the imposition of several lockdowns impacts women more than men, deepening existing health inequalities by making it harder for women to access medical care and treatment.
The UK government’s current position on women’s health
A recent ‘Women’s Health Strategy: Call for Evidence’ initiative by the Department of Health and Social Care in the UK is promising. Intending to collect views and information from the public to help inform the development of the UK government’s ‘Women’s Health Strategy’, the Department is finally focusing on making women’s health a key priority. It is undeniable that this is long overdue. The government’s recognition that there are taboos surrounding women’s health, hindering women from speaking about their health and being ignored or dismissed when they find the courage to do so, is a huge step in the right direction. This call for evidence recognises the need to make women’s voices heard and that not all women have the same experiences, which many (men) sitting in government offices and on boards of hospitals have not yet fathomed. Those sitting in positions of power with the ability to orchestrate changes to women’s health policies need to understand that investing in all women’s health areas is vital to allow women to reach their full potential and contribute to our communities on par with our male counterparts.
How we, at Bham Pharma, are going to raise awareness of women’s health conditions and be part of the solution
As the former Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, stated in his ‘Ministerial foreward’, this “‘male by default’ problem of the past must be put right”. This vast gender health gap needs to be closed urgently. At Bham Pharma, we recognise that women’s health needs to be a priority; for us as a boutique medical writing and communications agency, for healthcare and medical professionals, for pharmaceutical companies manufacturing medicines for women’s health conditions, and funding agencies. Aside from our Managing Director, the entire team at Bham Pharma is made up of only women, and we are committed to expanding our own knowledge about all the health conditions that affect women, either entirely, or disproportionately, more than men. Many of these issues are close to our hearts and are conditions that we have been either directly or indirectly affected by, yet we know that due to a combination of female under-representation in clinical trials and a lack of researchers and funding for our conditions, this health inequality is rarely discussed. We want to start this discussion.
Over the next few months, we will be posting a blog every two weeks on our social medial platforms, each focusing on a different medical condition affecting women. Through these blogs, we aim to shed light on these women’s health issues and highlight the importance of prioritising them for funding and clinical research. We recognise that as a team of female medical writers, sharing our knowledge and thoughts on issues relevant to women will play a vital role in bringing long-overdue attention and focus to these conditions.
The field of women’s health requires discussion, funding, research, and medical advancement. This is the only way in which women can take charge of their health to not only enhance overall wellbeing and quality of life but also empower women in other areas. This may include greater access to socio-economic opportunities, improved personal and professional relationships, and an increased sense of self-worth and agency.
Starting the conversation is the first step of many. Through our women’s health-centred blog posts, and our company’s focus on women’s health in general, we want to place women at the forefront of the conversation because if women are healthier, everyone benefits.
Our first women’s health post will be published on the 15th of July and each subsequent post will be available every two weeks. We hope that you will join us in starting this conversation. Stay tuned!