Welcome to the Parliament Brief, where Spotlight, the New Statesman’s policy section, digests the latest and most important committee sessions taking place across the House of Commons and House of Lords. Previous editions can be found here.
Who? The BBC presenter and journalist Naga Munchetty and TV personality Vicky Pattison gave evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee about their experiences of menstrual health problems and their interactions with the NHS and private health providers.
When? 10am, Wednesday 18 October.
What was discussed? This was the first session of the committee’s inquiry into women’s reproductive health. The session was a chance for it to hear real-life experiences of reproductive health conditions from high-profile figures.
Munchetty has publicly discussed her adenomyosis diagnosis – a little-known condition of the womb that causes endometrial tissue in the lining of the uterus to grow into the muscular wall of the uterus and leads to heavy bleeding and intense pain – and the impact it has had on her professional and personal life.
Pattison has spoken about her diagnosis of pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder, which causes severe PMS (premenstrual syndrome) symptoms, on social media.
Why did this come up? The committee launched this inquiry in July to understand the challenges women face during the diagnosis and treatment of reproductive health issues. This followed a UK government public survey, which revealed that only 8 per cent of respondents felt they had access to enough information on gynaecological conditions, and that many women had been forced to speak to several doctors over months to receive a diagnosis for their symptoms.
When launching the inquiry, the committee chair Caroline Nokes stated: “Taboos and misinformation still stifle the conversation, making it difficult for women to get to the facts. In this inquiry, we want to get to the bottom of what constitutes ‘healthy’ periods, the barriers to good reproductive health, and whether women are getting the care they need.”
So what did they say? Munchetty told MPs that adenomyosis had affected her since the age of 15, and impacted her life, work and education. “I would bleed for 11 or 12 days. Eight or nine of them were very heavy. I would throw up on the first day at least once or twice, I would pass out once or twice. I’d be wrapped around a toilet,” she said. “I wouldn’t sleep… it made relationships very difficult, I had to have very understanding partners. I would worry about what I wore, particularly when I started [working] in front of the camera, in case of leaking. But my adenomyosis wasn’t diagnosed until I was 47.”
[See also: Labour ignores young women’s health at its peril]
Pattison told the committee that “for ten days of the month” she felt “really fatigued, suffering with insomnia, [with] crippling anxiety, terrible self-doubt, no passion for the things I normally loved… and almost, in some of the darker moments, felt like the world would be better if I wasn’t in it”.
The pair also shared their experiences of interacting with health services, with both saying that doctors had refused to take their concerns seriously. Munchetty described how she felt “gaslit” over the 32 years she sought advice and treatment from healthcare professionals. She said staff told her to “suck it up” and was told by doctors that “everyone goes through this”.
Munchetty only eventually received a diagnosis after opting for private healthcare, explaining: “It was the only time I felt I could sit there and take time and force an issue, force understanding, force explanations from my gynaecologist and not feel bad that I was taking up more than ten minutes of my GP’s time because there was a queue of people in the waiting room.”
Pattison also said she felt “invalidated” by health professionals who told her time and time again that what she was experiencing was normal PMS. She told the committee she felt “ashamed” that she was “making such a big deal” of her symptoms, and doctors had told her that her symptoms were normal. Eventually, Pattison opted to see a private doctor, explaining: “When I eventually was paying to see somebody, I felt like I had more of a right to sit there and speak.”
Any conclusions? The pair’s evidence highlighted the discrepancy of quality between NHS and private care for reproductive and women’s health issues. Both Munchetty and Pattison said they had only received appropriate diagnosis and treatment when opting for private healthcare, highlighting the lack of attention and time doctors were able to provide in the NHS.
The pair also called for health workers to have a better understanding of the reproductive health issues of women, and agreed that the NHS is failing girls and women.
Munchetty told the committee there was “a lack of specialism in the NHS” and “not enough focus in the medical profession on women”, while Pattison called for health workers to “start [taking] women seriously when they say something’s wrong”. Nokes also promised that the committee would eventually issue guidance to the NHS and schools to tackle the stigma and misinformation surrounding women’s health.
What next? The committee is likely to hold another evidence session in due course.
[See also: Why are women still paying for HRT?]