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Sexism in healthcare
Illustration Marija Marc

It’s official: the UK healthcare system is failing women

A government report published shortly before Christmas has revealed the extent of the gender health gap

TextZesha SaleemIllustrationMarija Marc

Around Christmas, a report was released by the government which looked into equality within healthcare, following a consultation to develop the first Women’s Health Strategy for England. You might have not noticed it – after all, it was around the rise of Omicron, and most of us were worrying about whether or not we’d get to visit family and friends over the festive period. The report gathered over 100,000 responses from women across the country, with over 400 written responses from organisations and experts working in the health sector and beyond. 

The report tells us what you’d expect: women don’t feel heard within the healthcare system, damaging taboos and stigmas still remain in areas of women’s health, and women want to be listened to more by their healthcare professionals. 

As a student doctor and a woman, I found the report incredibly damning. At the same time, it was an unsurprising read. We know that medical myths about gender roles go back centuries, yet it’s still affecting women’s health today. For example, a woman’s pain is more likely to be seen as having an emotional or psychological cause, rather than a bodily or biological one. Women are also 30 per cent more likely than men to have the symptoms of a stroke misdiagnosed and have a 50 per cent higher chance of receiving an incorrect initial diagnosis for heart disease, while a staggering 90 per cent of people living with endometriosis say their pain is dismissed. This isn’t new, either. In 1807, a 77-year-old woman from Liverpool died after years of pain in her uterus, despite going to several doctors. The last doctor she saw (John Rutter) concluded that her discomfort was amplified by her “nervousness”. 

Furthermore, Medicine, particularly when it comes to research, has failed to include women in the discussion. Research into issues specific to women is very underfunded relative to cost of care. One major example is the lack of research when it comes to endometriosis, a debilitating medical condition where tissue similar to that which lines the inside of the womb is found elsewhere, such as the colon. It’s thought to affect around two million women in the UK. Many have experienced dismissal or diminishment of even incapacitating pain by a male-dominated medical establishment, and are forced suffer due to chronic underfunding of reproductive research.

For every £1 spent by the NHS caring for cancer, it spends 12p on research. On the other hand, for every £1 spent by caring for reproductive issues, only one pence is spent on research. Compared to France, where President Macron launched a campaign against endometriosis – with new national funding – the UK isn’t doing enough at all. It’s an issue epitomised by the pill: women have been taking it since the 1960s, but we’re only just scratching the surface when it comes to the negative impact the pill can have on women’s mental health. The worst part? We’re still waiting for a male equivalent to the pill because the same side effects for them are deemed unacceptable.

If you’re a woman of colour, your healthcare outcomes are more likely to be worse than your white counterparts. As a woman of colour in the profession, it plays very heavily on my mind. Personally, I’ve seen close family members being treated by healthcare staff in horrid ways which had later consequences. If you’re a Black woman, you’re four times more likely to die in pregnancy. In the US, post-menopausal Black women with heart attacks or coronary heart disease experience lower treatment rates than white women. In the UK, South Asian women have complained about being dismissed by doctors who claim that they’re suffering from Bibi Syndrome: an imagined condition where South Asian women are said to exaggerate their health complaints to a professional. 

There is a serious equality gap when it comes to women's healthcare. Women of today are carrying the burdens of historic injustices within the healthcare system. We have a huge responsibility to do everything we can to make women feel heard and seen when it comes to their health. The Women’s Health Strategy for England is a step in the right direction – but it’s long overdue.