I READ a book recently that I found truly eye-opening.
In Invisible Women, the author Caroline Criado-Perez powerfully sets out how, throughout history, society has been designed for the 'average male'.
At best, we are an afterthought, treated as a ‘small male’, and at worst, invisible.
This is true for every woman; from women’s everyday experience of seat belts that are uncomfortable and slice into our necks because they are designed for male bodies, to the astronauts whose first, all-female, spacewalk was cancelled because NASA didn’t have enough spacesuits designed for women’s bodies.
Women invisible in healthcare
Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the health sector.
Women make up over half of the UK population, but when it comes to the collection and use of health data, we are all but invisible.
Medicine has been historically biased towards men, with the male body routinely perceived as the default.
Researchers have always preferred male subjects; this runs true all the way down to the lab mice used in early pre-clinical research.
Even today, women remain underrepresented globally as participants in clinical trials across a range of areas, including cardiovascular disease, neuroscience and HIV.
When studies do include women, many fail to analyse and report the results broken down by sex.
This preference for male as default is detrimental to woman’s health outcomes, and prevents us from improving our understanding of women’s health.
Take a heart attack as an example, something which many perceive to be a ‘male problem’.
A recent study revealed that women with a total occlusion of the coronary artery are 59 per cent more likely to be given the wrong diagnosis compared with men.
Women are also 50 per cent more likely to be misdiagnosed following a heart attack. Why is this?
Because often women do not present with the same signs and symptoms as their male counterparts and which doctors are taught to recognise during their training.
So where does this leave women? How do we know we are treating women in the best possible way if they have been excluded from the evidence from day one?
As the minister with responsibility for women’s health, I have heard all too often from women that they feel their voices aren’t being heard. Sadly, this is not new.
Devastating delays in endometriosis diagnosis
It’s an unacceptable truth that it will take a woman on average seven and a half years to be diagnosed with the debilitating yet common gynaecological condition endometriosis.
It affects one in 10 women of reproductive age, and can cause chronic pain and even infertility.
Why is it that 40 per cent of women with endometriosis have to go to their GP 10 times before being referred to a specialist?
And why is it that despite suffering from almost all chronic pain conditions to a greater extent than men, women typically receive less and less effective pain relief, and more antidepressants and mental health referrals?
The implications of women not being included in research or not being listened to when raising health issues negatively impacts the NHS, wider society, and most importantly, women themselves.
Time to take action
This week, I will be sitting down with a group of key NHS decision makers, stakeholders, and campaigners so that we can begin to work collaboratively to think of ways to empower women and break down the historical gender bias in this space so that ultimately the healthcare women receive is better.
We must fill in the gaps we know exist in our data so that we can better understand the issues facing women, so we can make great improvements.
We must start, in order to be successful, by building up our evidence base, which is woefully lacking.
We need to understand why it is that although women live longer than men, they spend less time in good health, with dementia remaining the leading cause of female death.
Over the following months, I will be challenging our collective unconscious bias, setting out my vision for a women’s health agenda and my commitment to give each and every woman a voice when it comes to their care.
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