In context: Women's health plan
The Scottish Government published a plan that aims to improve health and reduce inequalities for women last month – making Scotland the first country in the UK to have such a blueprint.
What is it?
Fundamentally, it’s a document outlining measures to change and improve in areas including menopause, heart health, menstrual health – including endometriosis – and sexual health.
It sets out 66 actions with the intention of ensuring all women can benefit from the best possible healthcare throughout their lives. The plan took on board the views and experiences of women, who gave feedback on the issues that are important to them.
Maree Todd, women’s health minister, said the ambition is for “Scotland to be a world leader when it comes to women’s health” as the government’s vision was unveiled.
Why is it needed?
The plan itself states that it is “underpinned by the acknowledgement that women face particular health inequalities and, in some cases, disadvantages because they are women.”
Women and girls experience several health needs and risks during their lives which are not the same as those of men. As the plan indicates, this may relate to starting and managing periods, choosing contraception, accessing abortion services, planning for pregnancy, managing menopause symptoms and the manifestation of chronic conditions such as heart disease.
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists previously concluded in a 2019 report that too many women are struggling to access basic health care and, when they do, opportunities are often missed to ask the right questions, make the most of available resources and prevent illness.
It is not restricted to differences in reproductive health either, as studies have shown that women do not always receive equal healthcare to men.
In heart health, women are less likely to be prescribed drugs that reduce the chance of a second heart attack. They are also less likely to receive diagnostic testing within 72 hours of admission to hospital.
These are just some examples of avoidable health inequalities for women that the plan, which was developed by the Women’s Health Group, is aiming to tackle head on.
What are some of the key aims and actions?
The 68-page document sets out a number of priorities and then actions that will be taken to help achieve them, including timescales set against said actions.
Some of the priorities include, but are not limited to, improving access to support and treatment for endometriosis, to information on menstrual health, and to abortion and contraception services. Additionally, it is considered key to reduce inequalities in outcomes for women’s general health, including work on cardiac disease.
In terms of key actions, a national women’s health champion and women’s health lead will be appointed in every NHS board and a research fund will be established to close gaps in scientific and medical knowledge.
There are plans to set up a women’s health community pharmacy service, while endometriosis research will be commissioned to develop better treatment and management, as well as a cure.
What have people said about the plan?
When announcing the plan, Todd said that it was right for the government to be ambitious in its vision for this policy area. She said: “It is clear that wider change must happen to ensure all our health and social care services meet the needs of all women, everywhere. Women’s health is not just a women’s issue. When women and girls are supported to lead healthy lives and fulfil their potential, the whole of society benefits.”
James Jopling, the head of British Heart Foundation Scotland, said the publication of the plan was a “welcome step” in tackling the inequalities women face in heart health.
He explained: “Coronary heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in women in Scotland and kills nearly three times as many women as breast cancer. At every stage – from the moment they experience symptoms through to their cardiac rehabilitation – women with heart disease can face disadvantages. We need to improve understanding of the risks for women and increase their awareness of the symptoms of a heart attack.
“We must also promote equality of treatment for women with heart disease within the healthcare system, at every point in their journey.”
Professor Marion Bain, the chair of the Women’s Health Group, led on the development of the plan and she said it should mark only the beginning of the work to address inequalities impacting women’s health.
She added: “It illustrates that we have some way to go in adequately shifting our focus to women’s health, and that will need commitment, leadership and effort from all those who provide services to women. [...] There is much work to be done but I am more than confident that we have the skills and the will to do this.”