It's A Shameful Truth, But Our Health Services Are Failing Women

A well-funded NHS that actually listens to and respects women should not simply be a dream - Labour will make it a reality
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After years of austerity, it is clear that women’s heath inequalities are widening. Whether that’s on breast cancer outcomes where one in ten cases are diagnosed late, on common mental health issues which are more likely to affect women than men, on cuts to early years maternal health support and or restrictions in access to IVF - the shameful truth is that too often our health services fail women even more than they fail men.

Many women have rightly complained of the ‘gender pain gap’ in both access to treatments and health outcomes. From endometriosis to the contraceptive pill, recent studies and stories have revealed that women’s health problems are being regularly neglected. A study in the BMJ concluded that more than twice as many women as men had to make more than three visits to a primary care doctor in the UK before getting referred to a specialist for suspected bladder cancer. NICE have had to directly advise staff to “listen to women” when women tell them about crippling pelvic and period pain and look out for the symptoms of endometriosis in a bid to speed up diagnosis. We know that poor mental health affects more women than men, with more women than ever now presenting with common mental health problems, and rates of self-harm in women are higher than ever, especially in young women. And today we revealed that, yet again, breast cancer waiting time performance in England has plummeted. The performance on the crucial ‘two week wait’ to get an appointment with a consultant, after an urgent GP referral, has already fallen below target for the first half of this year.

The Government’s failure to urgently deal with these health inequalities is shocking. Of course, health inequalities arise for many complex, often interlinked, reasons - from the state of housing people that live in, the quality of the air we breathe, to income, educational achievement, disability and social isolation. But it is absolutely the Government’s responsibility to create the conditions where people can live longer healthier lives. It’s why an overarching target to narrow health inequalities will be a specific target of the next Labour government, running like a golden thread through our entire policy agenda.

Its why ending austerity across the wider public sector is so important to us, not just to improve the quality of service offered to the public, but because we know that well-resourced public services, with well paid staff, strengthens the social fabric of society as whole.

I’m committed to ending the gender pain gap, which is why I’m today asking for staff and patients to work with us to produce a comprehensive women’s health strategy. The starting point must, of course, be a fully funded NHS.

If Labour enters government this year, our health service will receive a five per cent uplift in investment. Crucially we would fully fund our commitments on the public health prevention budget as well.

However, a genuine strategy to tackle health inequalities must include a plan to address the inequalities facing women’s health outcomes and unmet needs as well. As Sir Michael Marmot found in his landmark study into health inequalities there are systemic gender differences in health outcomes. How can it be right that women live longer than men, but spend a greater proportion of their lives in poor health?

Everybody knows that early intervention is key, whether that’s to prevent mental health problems getting worse or to treat the early stages of more serious illnesses. But we don’t need women to get better at prioritising their health – they are already doing just that. What we really need is a properly funded, well-staffed health service in place that has the capability and resource to be able to believe and treat them quickly when they say that something is wrong. A well-funded NHS that actually listens to and respects women. That should not simply be a dream - Labour will make it a reality.

Jon Ashworth is the shadow health and social care secretary and Labour MP for Leicester South


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