Women’s Health Strategy: only the beginning
Gemma Davison reviews recent the public policy purview on women
In August 2022, the government presented the first ever Women’s Health Strategy for England. Its foreword states while the healthcare system in England should serve the nation, 51 per cent of the population faces considerable obstacles when it comes to getting the care they need. This is all too obvious – October, for example, was Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Menopause Awareness Month, and Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. Although this draws much-needed attention to women’s health issues, the stigma surrounding these conditions and challenges still impedes effective and efficient support.
The strategy acknowledges there is a significant data gap. Historically, medical research hasn’t effectively considered the different health needs of men and women. Crucially, women’s reproductive health, including topics such as miscarriage, infertility, abortion, endometritis and menopause, were, and in many cases still are, taboo. This is partly due to social stigma and because our health system didn’t fully understand women’s health needs. These needs have evolved over time, partly as a reflection of social and economic change, but also due to advances in assisted reproductive technology providing women with a greater perceived choice of options. Our health system, however, hasn’t kept pace with such changes, and so the day-to-day experience of women receiving healthcare services now requires investment and improvement. The strategy focuses on the need for research, investment and change in our health system.
It’s a start, but it isn’t the full picture. Women are distinctly under-represented in clinical trials, meaning not nearly enough is known about issues affecting women specifically, or about how conditions impacting both men and women have differing effects on each. Even with a month of increased awareness of a range of issues impacting women specifically, it is important to consider the reality of women’s health issues and how the government and the health system need to work going forward. For example, there have been calls for menopause check-ups to be introduced for women at 45 years old. A report published by the Menopause All-Party Parliamentary Group made recommendations for early diagnosis, so women could have access to the correct support and treatment. Early diagnosis can make all the difference in many situations. For example, almost all women diagnosed with breast cancer in its earliest stages survive the disease for at least five years.
The onset of peri/menopause can be a difficult time for couples. It is not uncommon for a marriage to break down during a woman’s menopausal years. Divorce rates in the UK peak for couples aged 45 to 49 years old – and is sometimes known as a ‘divorce danger zone’. Fertility problems and outdated laws around surrogacy and other routes to parenthood can be detrimental to couples and individuals whose keenest desire is to have a family. The movement in this area of law has been a long time coming, but is snail-paced. The Law Commission’s consultation paper on surrogacy laws to protect surrogates, intended parents and the child commenced in 2019, but the draft Bill is still awaited – and is not expected until spring 2023.
All of this can put additional pressure on marriages and relationships. However, as divorce lawyers, what we tend to see is not necessarily the health issues themselves are a direct cause for relationships breaking down, but they magnify the existing cracks between a couple. Much of this is due to communication problems. In a recent survey by Stowe looking at the impact of menopause on relationships, 66 per cent said their partner didn’t understand the struggles menopause can bring, and 75 per cent said their partners didn’t have the knowledge to support them properly. Combined with a lack of proper care from the health system, this can cause tensions, and some couples lack the resilience needed to cope with the challenges. As the Women’s Health Strategy begins to be implemented in England, it will be interesting to see what levels of support and treatment will be offered to women, and whether this will have a positive effect on relationships
Gemma Davison is a senior associate at Stowe Family Law stowefamilylaw.co.uk