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31% of women suffer severe reproductive health problems

Stigmas around women’s health still exist, say experts

Jo Carlowe

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Nearly a third of women experience “severe reproductive health problems” but under half seek help.

In the first report* of its kind, Public Health England (PHE) has revealed the impact of women’s reproductive health issues on the nation’s physical, mental and social wellbeing. The report combines women’s experiences, as reported in a new survey, with existing data to define reproductive health as a public health issue.

The report shows for the first time the extent of the impact these issues have on women’s ability to work and go about their daily lives and will form the basis of a cross-governmental five-year action plan on reproductive health.

The survey of 7,367 women reveals that 31% had experienced severe reproductive health symptoms in the last 12 months, ranging from heavy menstrual bleeding to menopause, incontinence to infertility.

The hidden burden of reproductive health was particularly evident in the workplace. Focus groups undertaken as part of the study revealed that reproductive symptoms often affect women’s ability to carry out daily activities, but many conceal their symptoms from work colleagues.

Existing studies show that 12% of women have taken a day off work due to menopause symptoms and 59% have lied to their boss about the reasons for their absence. In addition, the PHE survey revealed that 35% of women have experienced heavy menstrual bleeding, which previous evidence shows is associated with higher unemployment and absence from work. Stigma surrounding reproductive health was a key concern for women taking part in the survey, with less than half of women seeking help for their symptoms, regardless of severity.

Overall, the report highlighted that women would like reproductive health issues to be normalised so that they can be discussed openly and self-managed where possible. It also underlines the need for more openness and support in the workplace around these issues.

Dr Sue Mann, Public Health consultant in Reproductive Health, from PHE said: “Women’s reproductive health concerns can fundamentally influence physical and mental wellbeing throughout their whole life course. Our research has highlighted that while individual reproductive health issues and concerns change throughout a woman’s life, the feelings of stigmatisation and embarrassment were almost universal.

“The report reveals the need for an open and supportive approach in the workplace and in the health system. We encourage women to seek support from their workplace, and for workplace management to be aware of how reproductive health symptoms can affect women’s daily life.”

A new consensus statement, which brings together 18 healthcare bodies, including Department of Health and Social Care, NHS England and the Royal College of GPs, has positioned reproductive health as a public health issue that needs to be addressed. Working with partners, PHE will create an integrated cross-governmental five-year action plan, informed by the best available data and women’s real-life experiences of reproductive health symptoms.

Responding to the report, Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs said: "Even though in the modern day we don't expect there to be social stigmas around women's health matters, unfortunately – as this research shows – stigma does still exist and it is concerning that many women do not seek help for conditions which can often be very serious.

"As GPs we strive to offer a safe space for all our patients to discuss any health matter they may be experiencing, and women should feel reassured that GPs deal with a wide range of female and sexual health consultations that are often of a sensitive and complex nature.

"This research also highlights the urgent need to encourage more public conversations around women's health matters to assure women that they will be taken seriously, and that they should never feel ashamed to talk openly about their health concerns whether that be their periods, miscarriage, infertility, menopause or something else.

"The College has signed up to Public Health England's campaign to make reproductive health a public health issue. Women's Health is also a clinical priority for the RCGP, with a particular focus on Menstrual Wellbeing, and we are working with partners to develop resources to support GPs and their teams to provide appropriate information and advice to their patients on a wide range of women's health issues.”

Coinciding with today’s report from PHE, the British Medical Association (BMA) today called for free sanitary products to be provided to help end period poverty.

A motion, passed at its Annual Representative Meeting today, called for sanitary products to be available for in-patients in hospitals, as well as calling for the government to provide them more widely for free.

A scheme has already been launched in Scotland where women from low-income homes will be offered free sanitary products.

Commenting, Mita Dhullipala, BMA medical students committee co-chair, said: “It would be convenient if you could plan your period around your life, and around your treatment, but sadly this isn’t the case. Having sanitary products easily available in hospitals would save patients the embarrassment of being caught out at a time that is already stressful enough.

“Period supplies are essential but they can be expensive. It is unacceptable that there are still people who cannot access them, usually those who are vulnerable or on low incomes. Many resort to using toilet paper, scraps of fabric, or sometimes nothing at all. Period poverty can be stopped by making sure these products are available to those who can't afford them.”

*What do women say? Reproductive health is a public health issue. A report prepared by Public Health England, June 2018.

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