From suffering in silence to taking back control – Women’s Health matters.

Jess Walmsley

Historically, the healthcare system has been designed by men, for men.

by Jess Walmsley

It may come as a surprise that the above statement is not my own. It comes directly from the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and is part of the Women’s Health Strategy for England. Who knew that such a thing existed? We certainly didn’t… and that’s where the conversation began. In conjunction with International Women’s Health Day, over pizza, we (a group of women from late teens to mid-40’s) got together to discuss the importance of women’s health, our voice in society, and how women are finally taking back control.

Women’s health is a topic of conversation that is habitually dismissed, not taken seriously, and is often made a subject of taboo. With five times more research into erectile dysfunction (which affects 19% of men), than into PMS (affecting 90% of women); to say that women’s health has been side-lined, is an understatement.


There’s always something…you just can’t win.

When discussing women’s health, a common theme came to light: we have no voice, and the voice that we do have is seen as being facetious. “It must be your time of the month” they say, assuming that hormonal changes must be involved when women express any form of emotion. Why is this such a common misconception, and why do we allow others to turn something that is completely normal into something ‘humorous’? Perhaps we do not help ourselves, as we “feel the need to hide our tampons in our shopping baskets” in public… there’s always something.


Society says we can’t.

Periods, contraception, menopause, pregnancy, infertility, body image – society labels them in such a negative way that we feel “uncomfortable talking about it”. We also discussed how women are still consumed by societies viewpoint that we are caregivers, perceived lower, and must disregard our own needs and put everyone else above ourselves – women’s health is once again left on the backburner. Why should society assume that the woman takes care of the children, shouldn’t be working full-time, or provide 3-meals-a-day for the family? We may have come a long way since the days when women were not given the right to vote, but the stereotypes around our roles in society are still stuck. Society is failing us.


It’s a man’s world.

The impacts of the healthcare system failing to put women at the heart of the health service is just another factor that reinforces the gender stereotypes. This is not helped by the many barriers which women face when speaking with, or trying to speak with healthcare professionals. And even when we do, society leads us to believe that speaking with another person about a topic of women’s health, or it being overheard by a stranger at the pharmacy or GP surgery is “embarrassing and awkward”. More to the point, data from The Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) women’s health strategy revealed that a shocking 84% of respondents felt they were not listened to by healthcare professionals. This includes not securing a diagnosis, having their symptoms dismissed or not taken seriously, and being given limited opportunities to discuss treatment options. Even whilst the majority of us would prefer a female GP when discussing women’s health issues, the conclusion can be drawn that even then, personal viewpoints and perceptions within society can take over.

Moreover, it is of no surprise that women take to other means to find out information regarding women’s health. In particular, the shift in behaviour from talking to a GP or pharmacist to online research can be noted. This is reinforced by research from the DHSC which shows that women find Google search is the second most relied upon source when it comes to health information, following family and friends. This highlights that women do feel comfortable enough to have those conversations with close relations, which is something that should be celebrated and encouraged, but would still choose to research themselves online rather than speaking with a healthcare professional. We should not still be made to feel awkward or embarrassed when walking into a pharmacy and asking for advice over the counter. We should be able to comfortably have those conversations with healthcare professionals that should share the same positive mindset on women’s health, not side-lined because we are “just being dramatic”. However, with all this being said, the narrative around women’s health is starting to change for the better.


The revolutionary switch

The POM to P switch made on two progestogen-only contraceptive pills, Hana and Lovima during 2021 has been revolutionary for the healthcare industry. For the first time in the UK, this switch allows people to be able to purchase the product over the counter, or online, after a short consultation with a pharmacist, without the need for a prescription. This is significant for two reasons: Firstly, it allows for the purchase of a P product online, directly from the brand. This builds a level of trust between the consumer and the brand as the product is delivered directly, and in discreet packaging. Secondly, it puts the control back in the hands of women – a giant leap forward for the future of women’s health.

Following this reclassification, consumer advertising and the media industries mindsets have also begun to change and become more accepting of these stereotyped ‘taboo’ contraceptive products. HRA Pharma’s ellaOne is a stand out product here in terms of its advertising, with their first major ‘My Morning After’ campaign for emergency contraception hitting the cinema screens in 2019, even before the POM to P switch took place. The campaign focuses on five women breaking through the taboo and taking control of their ‘morning after’ without the fear of judgment. This celebration of women taking back control of their own health and bodies is something that as a society, we need to recognize and bring forwards into the mindsets of the future.


Transforming women’s health for the future

Reversing the stigma and breaking the taboo surrounding women’s health starts and continues to develop as we encourage those conversations about the female body. Whilst it can be recognized that the narrative around women’s health is starting to change, “everyone can do better”. The healthcare system, our educators, local communities, and workplaces must all come together with this positive attitude towards women’s health for it to truly make an impact. Women’s health matters, and we should not suffer in silence. Promoting these types of conversations within society and engraining it within culture is the key. Our focus group has allowed us to do just that. We left feeling empowered, inspired, and resilient, and will continue to encourage our people to have those conversations as we come together to create a safe and understanding environment.