If Labour is serious about fixing the health system, it needs to look at the way women are treated

After being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in in my teens, it was Christmas day when I was rushed into hospital at the age of 21 with a huge flare up and in terrible pain. After ten days of trying to control the problem with medication, the doctors said I needed emergency surgery, or my bowel might perforate and I could die. 

It was major surgery – and I had to have a further two over the following years. After they were complete, I was told I’d have to take medication and have regular injections for the rest of my life, but no other long-term implications were mentioned to me. It was a difficult and traumatic time in my life, but I eventually started to live relatively normally.

Then in my mid-thirties I got into a serious relationship, and we started to talk about the possibility of having children. I was at a routine hospital appointment when I mentioned this to my consultant. He told me quite flippantly that I had better do it sooner rather than later, because given the surgery I had, I could have problems. 

I remember the shock of that moment and feeling like the room was spinning. I’d had no idea this could be an issue, and the consultant had just dropped it into conversation like it was nothing. After a few minutes of trying to process the situation I broke down in tears, to an awkward response from the consultant who clearly didn’t know how to respond. He just sent me away with a leaflet.

As I had medical investigations, it was one piece of bad news after another. There was no doubt my fertility was affected by the surgery, but devastatingly I also had a low egg count for my age. Even though it felt too soon for us, my partner and I went on the waiting list for IVF straight away. I had one failed round and the doctors told us it just wasn’t going to happen. Like many couples, the whole thing put too much pressure on our relationship, and it broke down the same week.

It took me years to come to terms with the fact I would never have the chance to be a mother. I’m flourishing in my life now, but still angry that in over 15 years not one medical professional raised the issue of infertility – and at the way I was finally told. If I’d known earlier, I could have tried to improve my chances and sought the expertise to help. By the time I found out it was a lost cause.

Unfortunately, I’m far from the only woman to have had experiences like this. In my two decades of work as a communications professional with social impact organisations, time and again I’ve seen women talk about how they are dismissed, condescended to and not taken seriously within the health system. Many others have waited years for a women’s health issue to be diagnosed or treated adequately. And these aren’t only anecdotal experiences – they’re backed up with research. 

A study by Manual, a wellbeing platform for men, showed that men are more likely to face greater health risks in many countries, But in the UK the reverse is true. We have the largest female health gap in the G20 and the 12th largest in the world. 

Recent figures from Fawcett Society show 60 percent of women in the UK believe their health issues are not taken seriously, while more than half have had a negative experience with a healthcare professional. 

While I was working with think tank Engage Britain – now part of Demos – we found 26% of women hadn’t got the support they need when seeking treatment. And 25 per cent of women were anxious they wouldn’t get the NHS care they needed in an emergency, compared with just 17 per cent of men. While women said they’re grateful for the NHS, in the same breath many spoke of feeling low and anxious because they couldn’t get the right support. 

From women suffering for years with uncertainty about conditions like endometriosis, to regularly feeling dismissed by health professionals– it’s more than clear that a systemic problem exists with women’s health in the UK. We could make a start at tackling this by ensuring women’s health issues are better researched and understood by the medical community. But crucially, we also have to root out misogynistic attitudes, and make sure health professionals communicate with women in a respectful and compassionate way. 

A Labour government is one where we know our beloved NHS will be prioritised. But if the party is serious about making our health system fit for purpose, that has to mean closing the gender health gap. A problem which affects half of the people its service treats cannot continue to be cast aside. 


If you enjoyed this piece, see our previous blog for International Women’s Day, There are still too many barriers blocking women from standing for election.