We need a Women’s Health Strategy for Wales
We talk about the gender wealth gap, but did you also know there is a gender health gap? And it’s killing women.
Sioned Williams MS writes about the lack of mention of women’s health – including maternity provision – in the Welsh Government’s existing long-term plan for health and social services, which is incurring a significant cost burden, not to mention a burden on the health of too many women across Wales.
From being prescribed anti-depressants by your doctor for chronic pain, to being diagnosed with a panic attack when having an actual heart attack, these are real experiences from real women in Wales. And they’re a symptom of a wider issue – a lack of a bespoke Women’s Health Strategy for Wales.
This week it’s my privilege to open a debate on Women’s Health, and it’s also a source of deep regret that we live in a Society when the importance of women’s health in any nation-wise health plan needs spelling out.
Because we are in the quite frankly ridiculous situation where the health and social care plan for Wales – which rightly mentions the need to address health inequality – does not identify gender as one of the factors in this inequality. And the reality is that this Gender Health Gap is just as prominent as the Gender Pay Gap in modern Wales.
Gender inequality works both ways – not every gender “wins” or “loses” all the time. But replicated across so many different areas of health like a gender seeking virus, is the fact that women have poorer health than men. In fact, the ONS has shown that women live fewer years in good health than men, and are more likely to be in poverty, requiring both social and financial support.
The first point to make – and this shouldn’t come as a surprise – there are some health conditions that only affect women and those assigned female at birth, such as endometriosis and menopause. What is less known is the extent of and impact of these conditions.
Endometriosis is thought to affect 1 in 10 women, and can be so severe it can kill you. Yes, you heard that right. What starts as painful periods can escalate to chronic daily pain, and can result in the organs inside your abdomen sticking together and in some cases, cause them to stop working properly.
This week I, and my colleagues, have been speaking to women who experience chronic pain every single day, caused by endometriosis. I just want to pay tribute to these women who are speaking up on a condition that has drastically impacted their lives, and yet so little research exists that we still don’t know what causes it. Your determination that others shouldn’t go through the same awful experiences as you has inspired me to use my platform to speak up for you, when so many others won’t.
One women told us how, after repeatedly describing severe pain to her doctor, was prescribed anti-depressants and told that the pain was all in her head. Not long after, she was rushed to hospital where she needed life-saving surgery – due damage all caused by endometriosis. This was the first time she’d been given a formal diagnosis of a condition she’d suspected she’d had for years. And yet when she had sought help, she’d been made to feel that she was being blamed for her symptoms.
Another told us it took decades to get a diagnosis, and longer still to receive surgery – at which point they were only just able to save her bowel from having to be removed as a result of the internal damage caused by endometriosis. As so many people pointed out, once your health starts to go, it can cause so many problems.
These stories are replicated throughout Wales, and yet how many people are unaware how common it is, let alone how severe it can be? Women are literally dying of this condition, and we don’t yet know what causes it, nor how to diagnose it without intrusive key hole surgery.
A comprehensive government plan also needs to address the fact that there are some disorders and diseases that disproportionately affect women and those assigned female at birth, including auto-immune and cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis, and dementia.
Perhaps even more worryingly, we’re being told by charities that women face unconscious biases at every stage of their journey. The British Heart Foundation told me that women are 50% more likely than men to receive a misdiagnosis for a heart attack – with the shocking example of women being told they’re having a panic attack when they are having a heart attack!
Thinking back to the experience of the person with Stage 4 endometriosis being given anti-depressants to help her feel better – this doesn’t surprise me.
This poor health can have a knock on effect on so many other areas of a person’s life. The people with chronic endometriosis that I my colleagues in Plaid Cymru have been speaking to, have lost careers, education, even partners. This inequality is costing people quality of life, and it’s costing society.
The government in Wales has said before that it wants to be a ‘feminist government’, and in the last week, have unveiled plans for a gender balanced Senedd. But in the meantime, there are thousands of women across Wales who are at the mercy of a health system that’s failing them. And the Welsh Government’s health plan doesn’t even name them.
This article was published in Wales Online on Wednesday 18 May 2022