Ministers have vowed to tackle decades of “systemic” and “entrenched” gender health inequality in England with plans to introduce compulsory women’s health training for doctors, more cancer checks and “one-stop shop” hubs across the NHS.
Access to contraception, IVF, maternity support and mental health services will also be improved, the government has pledged in its first women’s health strategy.
Baby-loss certificates will be offered to those losing a child before 24 weeks and a national fitness programme will encourage older women to build muscle strength and keep active.
Steve Barclay, the health secretary, said: “It is not right that 51% of our population are disadvantaged in accessing the care they need, simply because of their sex.
“The publication of this strategy is a landmark moment in addressing entrenched inequalities and improving the health and wellbeing of women across the country.”
Women live longer than men on average but spend about a quarter of their lives in poor health, compared with a fifth for men. The 127-page strategy says that “historically, the health and care system has been designed by men, for men”.
There is also a health gap between women in deprived areas and those in wealthier parts of the country.
The Guardian revealed in April that women in the poorest areas of England are dying earlier than the average woman in almost every comparable country.
Originally due last year, then rescheduled for the spring, the government’s 10-year women’s health strategy will be published by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) on Wednesday. Another government health strategy – on health disparities – was due to be published this week but is likely to be delayed until after the summer.
Almost 100,000 women took part in the consultation. Maria Caulfield, the women’s health minister, said some of their experiences were shocking.
“When we launched our call for evidence to inform the publication of this strategy, women across the country set us a clear mandate for change,” she said. “Tackling the gender health gap will not be easy – there are deep-seated, systemic issues we must address to ensure women receive the same standards of care as men, universally and by default.”
Under the strategy, new research on women’s health issues will be commissioned to raise understanding of female-specific health conditions and “tackle the data gap” to ensure diagnoses and treatments work better for women. The women’s health section on the NHS website will be overhauled and expanded.
Parents who experience pregnancy loss before 24 weeks will be offered a certificate to recognise this. The government is also investing £10m in the NHS breast-screening programme to provide 25 new mobile breast-screening units.
All doctors will be trained to provide better care to women, with mandatory teaching and assessment on women’s health for all medical students and incoming doctors.
Thousands of women told the consultation that they “persistently needed to advocate for themselves” and had to push for further investigation in order to secure a diagnosis.
The delays often have ramifications for their health and quality of life. Of those who responded to the consultation, 84% said they often feel ignored or not listened to when they seek help from the NHS.
Trainee medics will be assessed by the General Medical Council on women’s health, with topics including the menopause, obstetrics and gynaecology.
Those undergoing specialist training, such as to become a GP or physiotherapist, will have teaching on women’s health, while existing doctors could take extra courses to improve their knowledge.
The strategy says: “We heard concerns that women had not been listened to in instances where pain is the main symptom, for example, being told that heavy and painful periods are ‘normal’ or that the woman will ‘grow out of them’.
“Women also told us about speaking to doctors on multiple occasions over many months or years before receiving a diagnosis for conditions such as endometriosis.”
The strategy promises to expand women’s health hubs, which are so far up and running in Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Hampshire, and Hackney in London, and enable women to access support, advice and treatment for a range of issues.
The government’s women’s health ambassador, Dame Lesley Regan, said the strategy is an opportunity to “reset the dial on women’s health” after decades of NHS services “failing” women.