Hormonal, emotional and irrational: Is it really the case that women's health is taken less seriously than men’s?

Published 08/03/2022   |   Reading Time minutes

It’s International Women's Day this week (8 March); a time where women and their achievements are celebrated. But it is also a good time to consider how women’s rights are fulfilled – including the right to health.

Studies show that a “gender health gap” exists and is a barrier to women accessing healthcare.

Tens of thousands of women recently submitted examples of how they had not been listened to by healthcare professionals to the UK’s Department for Health and Social Care. They provided examples where their symptoms were not taken seriously, or dismissed upon first contact with a GP or other healthcare professional. Other examples showed how women had to persistently advocate for themselves to get a diagnosis, often over multiple visits, months and years.

Women are still referred to as “being over-emotional”, or seen to be exaggerating the extent of their pain and suffering.

Women live longer but in poorer health

Public Health Wales say that life expectancy for men in Wales is 83.5 years and it’s 86.6 years for women. But while women in Wales (and across the UK) have a longer life expectancy than men, they are spending less of their life in good health.

A study undertaken in 2020, which looked at population health across 156 countries found that the UK has the largest G20 (the countries with the largest economies) female health gap, where women are worse off. There’s a difference of 38 places between where UK men (87/156) and women (125/156) rank globally amongst their peers across different health and wellbeing categories. This includes life expectancy, rate of diseases such as diabetes, cancer and obesity, and mental health disorders and suicide rates, among others.

An emerging body of research shows that women experience poorer healthcare than men. For example, that women are less likely to be diagnosed at the early stage of Alzheimer’s because they tend to have better verbal memories than men. That means they perform better in memory tests.

Research published by Oxford University in 2019, found that women are 13 per cent less likely than men of the same age to receive life-saving drugs such as statins after a heart attack. This may be one reason women are twice as likely as men to die in the 30 days after a heart attack.

As diverse as cancer, chronic pain and dementia there are various studies showing that women are more likely to receive delays in diagnosis and care. Together, they present a picture of women’s health concerns not being taken as seriously as men’s.

Some women’s health experts say:

Whether it’s heart disease labelled as anxiety, an autoimmune disorder attributed to depression, or ovarian cysts chalked up to “normal period pain,” many women’s health issues are likely to be misdiagnosed or dismissed by doctors as something less critical […]
There’s still this pervasive belief in the medical community that anytime a woman complains about her health, it’s either related to her hormones or all in her head.

Why there is a gender health gap

Women’s bodies, and the conditions that affect them are under-researched, with their causes and treatments unknown.

In July 2021, the House of Lords Library published ‘Women’s health outcomes: Is there a gender gap?’. The article suggests that one explanation for the gender health gap comes down to the under-representation of women in clinical trials. It’s been reported that:

There has been five times the amount of research into male erectile dysfunction, which afflicts 19% of men, than there has been into premenstrual syndrome, which effects 90% of women.

Less is known about conditions that only affect women including common gynaecological conditions, such as endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, and premenstrual dysphoric disorder that can have severe impacts on health and wellbeing. For example, the UK All Party Parliamentary Group on Endometriosis found that on average it takes 9 years for women to receive a diagnosis of endometriosis (longer than any elsewhere in the UK), with 40% of women needing 10 or more GP appointments before being referred to a specialist.

The lack of medical research also means that researchers do not have the opportunity to identify and study sex differences in diseases; it creates assumptions that similar medical treatments will work for both males and females. Diabetes, heart attacks and autism are all conditions that can present differently for males and females. Academic expert Perez explains:

What are known as the classic symptoms for heart attacks are ‘classic’ for men. Women are actually more likely to experience breathlessness, fatigue, nausea and what feels like indigestion than pain in the chest and down their left arm.

The Women’s Health Wales Coalition explain that there are challenges in establishing how long trainees spend on ‘women’s health’ in medical, nursing, midwifery, and allied health professionals’ training, not least due to variation in syllabuses across Wales and the UK. They suggest that it may be as little as 6 weeks or fewer over the course of three years.

Wales doesn’t have a women’s health plan

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) published the ‘Better for Women’ report in December 2019. It recommended that the 4 UK nations should publish a women’s health plan to address areas of unmet need for women’s health.

Scotland was the first country in the UK to have a Women’s Health Plan. The UK Government published its draft plan ‘Our Vision for the Women’s Health Strategy for England’ in December 2021. Its final strategy should be published in spring of this year.

Wales doesn’t have a women’s health plan. It has a Women’s Health Implementation Group (WHIG), which was established in May 2018 to address specific areas of women’s health requiring urgent attention and improvement, including vaginal mesh; endometriosis care and faecal incontinence.

The Health Minister says she’s committed to improving women’s health, and that Welsh Government officials are developing a “women’s health proposal”. But the charity Fair Treatment for Women in Wales says “when it comes to women’s health generally, we’re lagging behind in all areas”.

The responses to the UK Government’s consultation on its women’s health plan show there’s no doubt that many women feel they are not listened to by health professionals. They also show that women are not supported well when dealing with health conditions. The experience of women in Wales is likely to be very similar.

The Women’s Health Wales Coalition say a women’s health plan is needed in Wales to proactively address the health inequalities experienced by women. Later this week, the Senedd’s Health and Social Care Committee will be speaking to them to find out more about their views on what a “women’s health proposal” for Wales should look like. You can watch the session live this Thursday (10 March) on Senedd TV.

Article by Sarah Hatherley, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament