It can be argued women are the backbone of families, communities and society as a whole. We provide care and support, nurture our families and still play a primary role in the care of children, our spouses and our ageing parents.
However, when it comes to healthcare, there is still an undeniable and unacceptable imbalance in health equity specific to female based care. Shockingly, the UK is thought to have the largest female health gap among G20 countries and the 12th largest globally, with eight out of ten women in the UK feel they’re not listened to by healthcare professionals. Does this shock you?
The reality of the gender health gap
The reality is healthcare systems have typically been designed around the needs of just half the population, with men historically being treated as the default patient in clinical practice and medical research. The UK is no exception.
However, biologically, women have different medical needs to men as we are subject to different hormonal pathways which play a significant role in how our bodies operate, the symptoms we show and how we react to different medication and treatment options.
The classic example often given is heart attack symptoms, women are much more likely to get fewer commonly known symptoms and sometimes even the absence of obvious chest discomfort. With women being underrepresented in all aspects, including being excluded from many clinical trials, as a result the diagnosis, prognosis and treatment outcomes are not clearly understood. The question raised here is – will this change any time soon?
Dig a little deeper, and we also find less is known about conditions which only affect women, including common gynaecological conditions which can have huge negative impacts on health and overall wellbeing. It can take a woman up to eight years, and over ten GP appointments, to receive a diagnosis of endometriosis and see a specialist, for example.
Not only do women fare more poorly than men in relation to disease prevalence, access to healthcare and outcomes after treatment, today over 70% of medicines used in pregnancy come with no, or sufficient safety information. In fact, in the last 30 years, only one medicine has been specifically developed for use in pregnancy. This leads to many women every year, who are either pregnant or trying to conceive, no longer having access to medications the rest of the population take for granted on a daily basis.
Females make up 51% of the UK population, so why are we not doing more to cater to women’s health needs and empowering women to take more control over their health on a global scale? Benefits of health equity across the genders are not only for women, but will benefit society as a whole. We need to be proactive, adapt our healthcare processes, do more research, and devote resources to improve health equity for women.
Community healthcare impact evolution
Before the pandemic, it is important to note half the world lacked access to essential health services. During this time, we were able to give around 72% of the global population at least one dose of the COVID 19 vaccination - with 67% being fully vaccinated. Fast forward to now, and healthcare is once again being actioned at a community level to create better access and support. This is thanks to a huge shift in people’s attitudes to the likes of “at home” testing which became more prevalent and accepted in the pandemic years. We are entering a “reset” phase where we can “redefine” healthcare and make it “work” for us and have it meet the patient or consumer wherever they are!
But how can we use this to help close the gender health gap?
Solutions to the gender health gap
First and foremost, we need better research and education into the differences between biological males and females. Professionals need to be given accurate information for both sexes, which needs to then flow into wider society so both men and women can understand if and when symptoms need attention. Giving more women and all races and ethnicities access to clinical trials will only help to understand these differences.
We also need to create a system and society where people feel they can competently and confidently take control of the first steps of their healthcare journey. Patients need to be educated and empowered and given the tools so when the time comes to talk to a medical professional, they know who to turn to as well as feeling armed with all the necessary information to get the help they need. The gaslighting which is quite common needs to stop.
Access to support needs to be triaged by professionals at a community level. When it comes to non-life-threatening symptoms, the process of securing a GP appointment can be more painful than the problem itself. For example, the average wait time for a non-urgent, face-to-face appointment is around 10 days, but with a UTI, something that impacts around 50% of women, the symptoms usually only last around a week. This can cause long term complications, such as repetitive occurrences and serious kidney infections. New legislation from the UK government will allow pharmacists to prescribe a course of antibiotics or medication. If a patient visits their pharmacist having already used a self-diagnostic test for UTI and is armed with the results, it will hopefully lead to quicker diagnosis, treatment at a community level, and therefore less long-term impacts.
Working with 2San, for me, has opened my eyes to the possibilities. They are collectively democratising healthcare – giving all people the opportunity to embrace the new era of self-diagnostic testing. The benefits are right in front of us; when tests are done by patients themselves, hours of precious healthcare professionals’ time can be saved and re-allocated to those who need it the most. Everyone has a right to explore their concerns, but we need to be smarter about how we manage resources to help create a more efficient and effective healthcare journey for all.
The more steps we take in the right direction to close the gender health gap and secure health equity across the board, the better healthcare all people will receive. There is still a lot of work to be done and the onus is on all of us to drive and push for change, for better care, better lives and a stronger healthcare system which supports us all.
Health for all, now that's a novel idea!
Written by Valerie Palmieri, Scientific Advisor North American at 2San