The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health and Social Care (Lord Bethell) (Con)
My Lords, I join all those who have commended my noble friend Lady Jenkin of Kennington for tabling a debate on this incredibly important matter. I congratulate her on smashing through dozens of anatomical taboos in such a splendid fashion in her extremely important opening remarks.
I believe that, as has been discussed today, the problem statement under debate is very clear—Nadine Dorries said it in another place earlier today, and it was echoed by the noble Baroness, Lady Bull: for generations, women have lived with a health and care system that is mostly designed by men for men. That is the problem. As a result, despite making up 51% of the population, women have been underrepresented in research, face damaging taboos about their health and, despite living longer than men, spend a greater proportion of their lives in ill health and with disabilities. For these reasons, there has never been a better time to put an emphasis on women’s health.
So I am extremely pleased that, on International Women’s Day, the Minister of State for Patient Safety, Suicide Prevention and Mental Health announced in another place the launch of the women’s health strategy for England. As noble Lords have mentioned, it asked for responses across six themes, and I think it is worth mentioning them, because they are the architecture of how we will approach this strategy. The first is
“Placing women’s voices at the centre of their health and care”;
the second is
“Improving the quality and accessibility of information and education on women’s health”;
the third is
“Ensuring the … system understands and is responsive to women’s health and care needs across the life course”,
and this was so articulately explained by my noble friend; the fourth is
“Maximising women’s health in the workplace”;
the fifth is
“Ensuring research, evidence and data support improvements in women’s health”,
as was explained very well by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton; and the sixth is
“Understanding and responding to the impacts of COVID-19”.
As has been mentioned, we had 112,000 submissions, which is an absolutely remarkable number and speaks well of the engagement that has gone on around this important issue. There have also been focus groups, and departmental Ministers have led a number of engagement exercises. I was delighted to chair two very important and revealing round tables and a series of one-to-ones with leading women in healthcare. This engagement is why we launched the call for evidence in the first place.
There are a number of challenges that cut across the area of women’s health, and I will mention two or three of them. We have a world-class research and development system in the UK, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, quite rightly pointed out, we know that women have been underrepresented in research and clinical trials, particularly women from ethnic minorities—as the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, pointed out—older women, women of child-bearing age, women with disabilities and LGBT women.
Women are not a homogenous group, and research must continue to understand and tackle specific dimensions of inequality to ensure equitable health outcomes across the population. While researchers and regulators have historically believed this to be good for women and babies, largely due to legitimate concerns about potential risks to an unborn child, too often women have been excluded from these discussions and have not been given the choice to participate in trials and studies. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie: we absolutely must work hard to change this and give women the choice to partake in clinical trials.
I will say a word about women’s conditions that are not being researched enough, which was highlighted by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. She is entirely right: there are still too many conditions about which we know too little. A key example of this is endometriosis, raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, in her personal testimony. A number of noble Lords have articulated the key fact that it takes seven to eight years for a diagnosis, with 40% of women needing 10 or more GP appointments before being referred to a specialist. If it was a man, I fear that it would be very different indeed. Menopause, mentioned by my noble friends Lady Jenkin and Lady Altmann, is another good example of this.
This lack of understanding of female conditions has implications for the health and care that women receive. Data is key and data saves lives—I am a big believer in that. To reassure my noble friend Lady Fraser of Craigmaddie, that is why
“Ensuring research, evidence and data support improvements in women’s health”
was one of the key themes of the call for evidence, and it will be a key theme of the strategy going forward. I completely agree with my noble friend that we must work hard to ensure that women, and women’s health issues, are included in research and data collection, finally ending the gender data gap that sadly exists.
Men are too often the default, and we do not know enough about the conditions that manifest differently in men and women. This can and does lead to poorer health outcomes, as vividly explained by my noble friend—I think it was Lady Bottomley; I cannot read my own writing. A University of Leeds study showed that women with a total blockage of a coronary artery were 59% more likely to be misdiagnosed than men and found that UK women had more than double the rate of death in the 30 days following a heart attack. I completely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hunt: this just is not good enough. I would be glad to meet with the noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood Green, to discuss the issue of mixed wards.
Too often, women are not listened to, and unfortunately we see this at all levels of the healthcare system, whether it be reports of women having their pain ignored during gynaecological procedures—such as IUD fittings or hysteroscopies—or the sobering findings from independent reports such as the Cumberlege review or the Paterson inquiry. One of the driving forces behind the decision to launch a women’s health strategy was the findings of the Cumberlege review; this is one of the manifestations of our response. I am enormously grateful to my noble friend for her work on this report and to many others in the House who have championed its work. The report powerfully highlights how the system did not listen to women. I am aware that today is the review’s first anniversary, and a debate has just taken place in another place to mark the occasion.
The Written Ministerial Statement of 11 January provided an update to Parliament. This included that the department had accepted the report’s flagship recommendation: the establishment of a patient safety commissioner. We also announced in this Statement that we had accepted recommendations concerning specialist mesh centres, MHRA reform and the establishment of a medical devices information system. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, the noble Baronesses, Lady Bryan and Lady Brinton, and others who asked that we are carefully considering the remaining recommendations and 50 actions for improvement. It is imperative, for the sake of patients and especially those who have suffered greatly, that we give this independent report the full consideration it deserves. In the January Statement, we announced that we would establish a patient reference group to work alongside the department to develop a full response. I am happy to confirm that the group was established earlier this year and has been working closely with officials to consider the report’s recommendations. I can assure Members that we will publish a comprehensive government response later this year.
On a positive note, can I say a few words about the good things that are happening in this area? The National Institute for Health Research is actively seeking to improve participation of underrepresented groups, and I would like to highlight the work of the NIHR INCLUDE programme. INCLUDE provides a design framework for clinical research proposals and gives examples of good practices and resources. The move towards virtual trials, due mainly to the pandemic, will accelerate that. The NIHR funds a wealth of research on women’s health and their outcomes. A couple of examples are the recently funded £2 million trial on endometriosis and the Policy Research Unit in Maternal and Neonatal Health and Care.
On long Covid, I completely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton: this is a gender challenge. The statistics are quite clear about that. I reassure the noble Baroness that the Government are doing everything we can to listen to and learn from all those suffering from the long-term effects of Covid, including women. I have heard first-hand the insights and experiences of people living with this new and debilitating condition. The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, is right: long Covid is a new challenge for healthcare systems around the world. I am proud that the UK is leading the way on excellent research, treatment and care. We are investing heavily in research. REACT Long COVID—REACT-LC—aims to better understand the genetic, biological, social and environmental signatures and pathways for long Covid. Through its efforts, supported by £50 million of research funding, we are learning more every day about long Covid. We have 89 new specialist assessment centres opening up around the country, and they are having a huge impact.
I will say a word about maternity services. The Government are committed to reducing inequalities in health outcomes and experiences of care. This was articulated very persuasively by the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, and the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin. In September 2020, the Minister for Patient Safety established the Maternity Inequalities Oversight Forum to bring together experts to address the inequalities for women and babies from different ethnic backgrounds and socioeconomic groups. We are working to ensure that, by 2024, 75% of black and Asian women, and a similar proportion of women who live in the most deprived areas, will receive continuity of care from their midwife throughout pregnancy, labour and the postnatal period.
Maternal healthcare is absolutely critical, as the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, rightly alluded to, and maternal mental health has been neglected. Five years ago, 40% of the country had no access to specialist perinatal mental health care. I am proud to say, in response to the questions on training from the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, that there are now specialist community perinatal mental health services in every CCG area in England, with more than 700 specialist front-line staff recruited in the last two years. We are committed to transforming specialist perinatal mental health services across England.
By way of winding up, and on a personal note, I will point to my own experiences in this area and tell the story of my mother, who was hard hit by postnatal depression. It is a condition that we now recognise to affect 15% of mothers, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, said. In the days when I was born, this condition was neither diagnosed nor treated. My mother developed mental illnesses, drug addiction and alcoholism, and was therefore stigmatised by the healthcare system and separated from her children by the courts. Her treatments were barbaric, including electric shock treatment and drugs that made her bloated and sick. She had a relationship with her GP—something that would absolutely not be tolerated now and did nothing to help her then. No one listened to her, the diagnosis was flawed and the treatments were medieval. The system abused her, and she passed away in her bath. I think it is fair to say that she died of being a woman. It had a profound effect on me, and I would not want that to happen to any woman or child again.
Those times have largely passed. The world has got better, but it has not changed enough. That is why my noble friend Lady Jenkin’s debate is so important: it demonstrates that the outline of the problem definition is very clear. It is why this consultation is so important: it ensures that we really have all the details from the people whose voices have not been heard. It is why this women’s health strategy is so important: it will give us a common plan to do something about a problem that has dogged our healthcare system for too long.