A year ago I stood among jubilant women in Parliament Square. The government had listened and committed to dramatically reducing the cost of NHS hormone replacement therapy (HRT) prescriptions for women in England. A taskforce had been set up to look at the other barriers preventing women from getting fair and equal access to support and treatment for menopause symptoms.
Twelve months and three health secretaries on – and on World Menopause Day (18 October) – very little has changed. We had a government HRT tsar who came and went within a few short months – her legacy merely a list of recommendations. We still await the implementation of the annual prescription prepayment certificate, and an HRT stock crisis rumbles on months after the Department for Health and Social Care promised it would be resolved.
There has been some progress: menopause is now part of our national conversation, in the media and across communities. But that is largely thanks to the tireless work of grassroots campaigners and celebrities willing to share their experiences. Conversations are great because the more we talk, the more we learn, but they are not enough on their own. We need action, yet despite the fact that more than half the population will experience menopause support remains woefully inadequate.
That is why the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on menopause ran a year-long inquiry into the impact of menopause and has recently published its concluding report, which highlights a number of areas where urgent change is vital.
Among them is a call for better training for medical professionals. Evidence taken during the inquiry showed a pattern of women continually being misdiagnosed, leading to ongoing symptoms and repeated appointments. The blame is not with the doctors but with those responsible for medical school curriculums. While the commitment in the government’s Women’s Health Strategy to change this is a welcome one, women who are suffering now cannot wait seven years for current medical students to enter practice, so we need a plan for training current practitioners.
Alongside this, the report calls for all women to be offered a menopause check-up with their GP when they turn 45. Identifying and addressing symptoms as women approach perimenopause and menopause will help them to access the support and treatment that they need at a crucial time. Women shouldn’t have to wait until their symptoms are severe to seek help. Early detection could not only save women months, possibly years, of unnecessary pain and anguish, but also save careers, relationships and lives. We cannot deny the obvious link between the age at which most women reach this stage of their lives and the most common age of suicide among women, both being between 45 and 55 years old.
The APPG report also considers the postcode lottery that women face in accessing HRT. The stark divide between those who can afford to seek treatment privately and those who cannot, coupled with the fact that different areas of the country recommend different HRT products as a primary treatment, means that women living in lower socio-economic communities are less likely to have access to the best care.
Evidence taken by the APPG during the inquiry made a clear case for the need for a National Formulary. This would give prescribers around the country equal access to the very best options to their patients. While it is not suitable for everyone, HRT is a safe and effective treatment for many women and it is vital that outdated myths about its safety are challenged.
Lack of workplace support was also a key element of the APPG report. With the shocking statistic that one in ten women are leaving the workplace for this reason, it is vital that employers start to take the issue seriously. Simple adjustments and support strategies will have the dual impact of making employees feel valued and enabling businesses to retain loyal and experienced members of staff. It should be the norm for any organisation, regardless of size, to offer basic menopause support policies to their staff, but currently only a quarter of businesses do.
It is crucial that change happens, and that it happens soon. I hope that the government listens to the evidence from the report and takes the decisive action needed to improve support and access to treatment for all.
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