What is England’s women’s health strategy hoping to achieve?

Dr Anita Sharma explains the aims of the women’s health strategy for England and offers some tips on how practices can improve women’s health.

Dr Anita Sharma headshot
Dr Anita Sharma

The health and wellbeing of women is critical to the wellbeing of the society as a whole. After years of waiting, the govenermnt published Our Vision for the Women’s Health Strategy for England in December 2021.1 The final strategy will be published in spring of this year, but this initial document sets out the government’s vision for its strategy.

The call for evidence ran for 14 weeks from 8 March to 13 June 2021. This included a public survey, which was open to all individuals aged 16 and over in England, an open invitation for individuals and organisations with expertise in women’s health to submit written evidence, as well as a focus group study with women across England, undertaken by the University of York in collaboration with the King’s Fund.2

A second report on the written submissions received from experts and organisations will be published by spring 2022, alongside the full strategy.

The public survey provides a rich source of data on women’s experiences of healthcare at all stages of life and on the interventions that would make the most difference to them. In turn, this provides a strong mandate for change, and the starting point for the future policy development.

What is the strategy’s aim?

The strategy’s aim is to improve the health of all women and girls. People who identify as trans, non-binary or have VSC (variation of sex characteristics) who will have specific needs and experiences, are also included in the strategy. The call for evidence clearly said that women do not feel heard within the healthcare system. This must stop.

While women in the UK on average live longer than men, they spend a greater proportion of their lives in ill health not only gynaecological and obstetrical but also mental, emotional and sexual when compared with men. There are also growing geographic differences in women’s life expectancy.

A key theme of the strategy is that women’s voices must be heard. Women professionals and patients must be involved in the local policies and service delivery. There should also be a focus on the education professionals and public.

The strategy will look at women’s health across ages, rather than taking a disease-speicific approach. These are puberty to 24, 25-50 years and over 51 years.

The key priority areas are:

  • Menstrual health and gynaecological conditions.

  • Fertility, pregnancy, pregnancy loss and post-natal support.

  • The menopause.

  • Healthy ageing and long-term conditions.

  • Mental health.

  • The health impacts of violence against women and girls.

Health inequalities

COVID-19 has brought health inequalities to the forefront more than ever before. COVID 19 has affected black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities at a disproportionate level.3

There are also disparities within women’s health. Black women are four times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth in UK compared with white women. Still birth is also twice as likely to occur in Black women compared to white women. Meanwhile South Asians have 40% higher death rates from CHD.

The women’s health strategy document acknowledges this. It says we ‘know that there are disparities between different groups of women in terms of access to services, experiences of healthcare, and health outcomes. We want to investigate the ways in which the healthcare system’s structure adversely affects women’s health’.

Recent articles in the BMJ have highlighted the significant impact of violence against women and girls4 in addition to the impact of mental health in maternal deaths.5

The time has come to take action to improve women’s health, which is why this strategy is welcome. We have to start focusing on providing the right care at the right time for women patients who have waited long enough.

Ten tips for improving women’s health

The following could all be considered if you are looking at how to improve women’s health in your practice.

  • Improve your access to women patients if there is a language barrier. Use language line.

  • Organise regular education sessions for professionals and patients.

  • Work together as PCN to focus on women’s health issues.

  • Empower women patients to raise their voices and concerns about the local services available for certain conditions, such as infertility or endometriosis.

  • Design early self-referrals to community midwife and care pathways for substance or alcohol misuse.

  • Make sure timely two-week-wait referrals are done.

  • Audit on maternal and gynaecological deaths and learn and disseminate the information.

  • Ensure you have female voices on your PPG.

Dr Anita Sharma is a GP with a special interest in gynaecology in Oldham, Greater Manchester.

References

  1. DHSC. Our Vision for the Women’s Health Strategy for England. December 2021.l Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/our-vision-for-the-womens-health-strategy-for-england
  2. Women’s priorities for women’s health a focus group study. December 2021
  3. Public health England Beyond the data: Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on BAME groups. June 2020. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/892376/COVID_stakeholder_engagement_synthesis_beyond_the_data.pdf
  4. Stockl H and Quigg Z, Violence against women and girls BMJ 2021;374:n1926 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.n1926
  5. Adlington K et al. Mental health is neglected in maternal “near miss” BMJ 2022;376:e069486 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj-2021-069486

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