The medical profession has failed when women in agony are dismissed as hysterics | Barbara Ellen

The vaginal mesh scandal betrayed the intimate trust that should exist between doctor and patient, whatever their sex

Whatever comes next in the vaginal mesh scandal, let’s hope that it spells the end of the “shut up and put up” medical culture when it comes to female healthcare.

The Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review, led by Baroness Julia Cumberlege, spent two years looking into meshes. It also scrutinised Primodos hormonal pregnancy tests and the epilepsy treatment sodium valproate – both thought to cause birth defects.

For their part, vaginal mesh implants caused women extreme pain – likened to “having razor blades” inside them – pelvic infections, and perforated bowels and bladders, with reports of organ failure and some sufferers committing suicide. Meshes were found to be inadequately tested and poorly regulated.

What also emerged from the inquiry was how routinely patients were brushed off, patronised and accused of imagining symptoms or being “hysterical”.

Cumberlege described the evidence as “damning”, and called on the government to apologise. Quite right. It’s also time for medicine to confront the entrenched sexism within its culture.

It has occurred to me before that medicine doesn’t like women very much. By which I mean there appears to be a culture of exasperation, impatience and disbelief when it comes to female patients trying to explain what’s concerning them, and even what’s hurting. It feels somehow like a “woman’s lot” to be patronised and disbelieved, particularly when dealing in matters gynaecological.

Sometimes it feels as if women should apologise for the sheer inconvenience of their anatomy, for having so much going on “down there”. Certainly, something is very wrong when, as with the meshes, so many women could present with painful, distressing symptoms only to be written off as “hysterics” and “whingers”. As some of these women were middle aged and older, was ageism also a factor? Would this happen with the genders reversed? If men had penis implants that felt like slashing razors, it’s hard to believe they would be told they were imagining it.

This matters, and not only because so many women suffered. It’s also about establishing a gold standard of trust between female patients and the medical establishment. Like men, women sometimes have to go to doctors with intimate, upsetting, even humiliating problems. When they do, they have a right to feel confident that they’ll be believed and respected. The fact that so many women weren’t respectedbut instead labelled moaners or fantasists, was a shabby and shameful episode in medicine.

Kanye West deserves our pity rather than our laughter

Kanye West in his Maga hat at the White House in October 2018.
Kanye West in his Maga hat at the White House in October 2018. Photograph: Consolidated News Pictures/Getty Images

So, it’s still acceptable to laugh at Kanye West? It’s fine to mock someone with bipolar disorder, who, in the past, has admitted to not taking medication because it “stifles creativity”, and whose family are reportedly highly concerned about him?

West has announced his intention to launch a 2020 presidential bid, even though he has missed the deadline for several states. In an interview with Forbes, West alleged that the healthcare organisation Planned Parenthood had been “placed inside cities by white supremacists to do the devil’s work”, and said of a potential coronavirus vaccine: “They want to put chips inside of us.”

West has stated a wish to run for president before. Since the advent of President Donald Trump, people are shy about confidently stating that such things couldn’t happen. This is beside the point. West suffers from a psychiatric condition – when unmedicated, its key traits include manic behaviour, delusions and paranoia. Talking to David Letterman last year, West said that when he suffers an episode, “everything’s a conspiracy. You feel the government is putting chips in your head,” echoing his remarks about coronavirus vaccines.

Is this a publicity stunt for West’s new music? Is he suffering a serious manic episode, as he’s thought to do around once a year? Or both? All this reminds me of when West met Trump in 2018, and was mocked for his Maga hat, and incoherence. I thought then, as I do now: please don’t laugh. If you must laugh, at least be aware that you’re mocking a person with mental health problems and a history of not taking his medication. You are participating in a modern-day Bedlam. West has the right to be anything he wants, but he must first look after his health.

The Murdochs can’t be as mad and bad as the Roys, can they?

Brian Cox as flawed demigod Logan Roy and Alan Ruck as delusional son Connor in Succession.
Brian Cox as flawed demigod Logan Roy and Alan Ruck as delusional son Connor in Succession. Photograph: AP

One hears that the forthcoming BBC documentary series about Rupert Murdoch, The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty, is very generous with allusions to Sky Atlantic’s critically acclaimed drama Succession, written by Jesse Armstrong, reputed to be based, in part, on Murdoch. The question is, can media mogul Murdoch live up to such a comparison?

If you’re going to have a drama based on your life, then you could do a lot worse than Succession. It’s up there with the best-written, finest-acted, most-compulsive viewing of recent times. Brian Cox’s portrayal of the paterfamilias, Logan Roy, is astonishing: a Shakespearean demon, surrounded by a family who make the cast of The Godfather seem relatively grounded and reasonable.

Compared to that, what has Murdoch got to offer: is the marriage to the supermodel Jerry Hall, going to be enough? Just as any documentary series about Murdoch now has to compete with Succession, so Murdoch, the man, must compete with Cox’s performance. Who’s the most compelling flawed demigod: Rupert or Logan? How do Murdoch’s real-life children rate alongside witty Roman or delusional Connor? Of course, I’m being facetious – there’s always plenty to talk about where Murdoch’s concerned – but it’s all getting deliciously meta.

•Barbara Ellen is an Observer columnist


Barbara Ellen

The GuardianTramp

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