We talk about the gender wealth gap, but did you also know that there is a gender health gap? And it kills women. Sioned Williams MS writes about the lack of mention of women’s health – including motherhood – in the Welsh Government’s existing long-term plan for health and social care, which results in a significant financial burden, not to mention a burden on the health of too many women across Wales.
From being prescribed antidepressants by your doctor for chronic pain to being diagnosed with a panic attack during a real heart attack, these are real experiences from real women in Wales and they are a symptom of a wider problem – a lack of a tailored strategy for women’s health in Wales.
This week I have the privilege of opening a debate on women’s health, and it is also a source of deep regret that we live in a society where the importance of women’s health in any national health plan needs to be clarified because frankly we are in the ridiculous situation where the health and social care plan for Wales – which rightly mentions the need to tackle health inequalities – does not identify gender as one of the factors of this inequality and the reality is that this gender health gap is just as large as the gender pay gap in modern day Wales.
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Gender inequality works both ways – not all genders “win” or “lose” all the time. But replicated in so many different areas of health as a gender research virus is the fact that women have poorer health than men. In fact, the ONS has shown that women live fewer healthy years than men, and are more likely to be in poverty, requiring both social and financial support.
The first point to make – and this should come as no surprise – there are certain health conditions that only affect women and those assigned to women at birth, such as endometriosis and menopause. What is less known is the extent and impact of these conditions.
Endometriosis is thought to affect one in 10 women and can be so severe that it can kill you. Yes, you heard right. What begins with painful periods can escalate into chronic daily pain and can cause the organs inside your abdomen to stick together and, in some cases, prevent them from functioning properly. You can read about a woman’s battle with being diagnosed and her wait to have surgery for the condition here.
This week, my colleagues and I spoke to women who suffer from chronic pain caused by endometriosis every day. I just want to pay tribute to these women who are speaking out about a disease that has had a huge impact on their lives, and yet there is so little research that we still don’t know what caused it. Your determination that others don’t go through the same horrific experiences as you has inspired me to use my platform to speak out on your behalf, when so many others won’t.
One woman told us how, after repeatedly describing severe pain to her doctor, she was prescribed antidepressants and told the pain was all in her head. Shortly after, she was rushed to hospital where she needed life-saving surgery – due to damage all caused by endometriosis. It was the first time she had received a formal diagnosis of an illness she had suspected for years. And yet, when she sought help, she was made to feel that she was blamed for her symptoms.
Another told us it took decades to get a diagnosis, let alone undergo surgery – at that time they were barely able to save her intestine from being removed due to internal damage. by endometriosis. As so many people have pointed out, once your health begins to deteriorate, it can cause many problems.
These stories are repeated across Wales, yet how many people don’t know how common it is, let alone how bad it can be? Women are literally dying from this disease, and we don’t yet know what causes it, or how to diagnose it without intrusive keyhole surgery.
A comprehensive government plan must also take into account that certain disorders and diseases disproportionately affect women and women assigned at birth, including autoimmune and cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis and dementia.
Perhaps even more worryingly, charities tell us that women face unconscious bias at every stage of their journey. The British Heart Foundation told me that women are 50% more likely than men to be misdiagnosed with a heart attack – with the shocking example of women being told they are having a panic attack when they have a heart attack.
Thinking back to the experience of the person with stage 4 endometriosis receiving antidepressants to help them feel better, this doesn’t surprise me. This poor health can impact so many other areas of a person’s life. The people with chronic endometriosis that my colleagues at Plaid Cymru have spoken to have lost their careers, their education and even their partners. This inequality costs people the quality of life, and it costs society.
The Government of Wales has previously said it wants to be a ‘feminist government’ and last week unveiled plans for a gender-balanced Senedd, but in the meantime thousands of women across the country of Wales are at the mercy of a health system that is failing them and the Welsh government health plan does not even name them.
Sioned Williams is MS for South Wales West. She will speak at a Plaid Cymru debate on women’s health on Wednesday, May 18. To get more news like this straight to your inbox, subscribe to our Wales Matters newsletter here.