Women’s Health Outcomes DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Lord Hunt of Kings HeathMain Page: Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Labour - Life peer)
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin of Kennington, on securing this debate, which feels particularly timely as we mark the 73rd birthday of the NHS this week. Women were undoubtedly among its most immediate beneficiaries, as the expansion of maternity care put an end to many of the horror stories of obstetric disasters, post-delivery haemorrhage and infections needlessly killing mothers after childbirth, for want of sterile surroundings. We have come a long way since then, but there is still some way to go.
The Library’s helpful briefing makes clear a range of healthcare areas in which women experience worse outcomes than men, including mental health. The Mental Health Foundation reports a strong relationship between women’s physical and mental health, with 85% of its surveyed members reporting that menstruation, menopause, pregnancy, fertility pressures and contraception impacted negatively on their mental health.
I will focus on eating disorders—serious mental health disorders that can affect anyone, but which are much more prevalent in women than men. A recent Finnish study found that one in six female adolescents and young adults met the criteria for an eating disorder, compared with one in 40 males. The pandemic has seen eating disorders spike, with demand for services up 200% in some areas and waiting lists at record highs. Those with high-BMI eating disorders cannot access treatment, since clinical pathways for binge eating are currently closed, as the NHS struggles to cope with the increase in low-weight disorders.
This is nothing short of a public health crisis, yet it receives neither the attention nor the funding it warrants. The best-known eating disorder, anorexia nervosa, has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder in the UK, yet the last available dataset comparing all mental health related research grants from major UK funders revealed that eating disorders received just 1% of the near £500 million available over the four-year period surveyed.
It is hard not to conclude that eating disorders suffer a triple whammy of perception and misperception: first, they are seen as a niche problem largely affecting a middle-class elite, which is not true; secondly, they are mental health conditions and, despite claims to the contrary, we have yet to live up to our promise to give mental and physical health parity of esteem; and finally, above all, they are seen as women’s issues.
Earlier this year, in the other place, the Minister Nadine Dorries said,
“for generations women have lived with a healthcare system that is designed by men, for men.”—[Official Report, Commons, 8/3/21; col. 535.]
Women continue to suffer as a result. I look forward to the forthcoming women’s health strategy and hope that it has some effect in redressing this age-old imbalance.
My Lords, this is an important and timely debate and I give full congratulations to my noble friend Lady Jenkin on introducing it. I start by echoing the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, on the requirement for urgent action following my noble friend Lady Cumberlege’s report. It is harder being a Health Minister in the Lords because there are so many experts. I chose my noble friend Lady Cumberlege and we worked together harmoniously. It is time we had a patient safety commissioner. That is part of the recommendations, only one of which has been properly implemented. We need a register of doctors’ interests.
My real purpose in speaking is to relate my experience at the University of Hull. Only one in four medical deans is female. At Hull, Professor Una Macleod is a general practitioner who still works in east Hull. She shapes and fashions the medical school so that it is relevant to the disadvantaged and underprivileged. Many in the House will know that my first job was working for the noble Lord, Lord Field. He went to the University of Hull and, for 16 years, I have been proud to be its chancellor. It is trying to reach out to the disadvantaged and neglected, who I call the inarticulate needy, not the articulate greedy, to whom I was so used in my former constituency.
I applaud much of the research, often by nurses and the professor of nursing, because nurses listen and are where the patients are. We have talked about underrepresentation in surveys, and Professor Lesley Smith has done some magnificent work on why younger women in lower socioeconomic groups are less likely to take part in population surveys. She has fashioned a tool to reach out to underprivileged, disadvantaged, less-connected and younger women so that we can understand what they need and want.
Dr Roger Sturmey talks of one in four women suffering from a miscarriage, but of only 2% of research going into miscarriage. A nursing professor of perinatal mental health said that women’s health outcomes and that of their babies are not good enough. He has designed a new measure, a revised birth satisfaction scale.
Over the years, there has been a dramatic improvement in women’s health. When William Wilberforce lived in Hull, women lived to 44. Now, the overall life expectancy is 82.7 years for women and 78.7 years for men but, as noble Lords have said, this conceals areas of neglect and suffering. It is not the extra years only, but the quality of them. I believe that, by looking more deeply and working with professions other than the traditional medical professions and by focusing our research, we can do more to meet the unmet need that so many in this House are so knowledgeable about and have contributed so strongly on.