Menopause campaigners have warned of a further surge in demand for already stretched hormone replacement therapy (HRT) supplies ahead of a documentary on the issue by Davina McCall, which will be broadcast on Monday.
They accused the government, which last week announced a new HRT tsar amid widespread shortages of the drug, of “paying lip service” to women and women’s health.
One pharmaceutical company reported a 30% rise in demand for HRT products the month after McCall, now 54, made her first documentary on the subject in 2021 – and huge numbers of women are expected to seek HRT from GPs for the first time after watching the new Channel 4 show. The makers of Davina McCall: Sex, Mind and the Menopause said they expect the programme to inspire “another wave of women to go to their GPs” to ask for HRT. They also expect a surge in demand for testosterone, whose potential benefits are also highlighted in the programme.
The documentary comes after a week in which shortages of certain HRT products have led to reports of some women feeling suicidal, and of being forced to ration or trade the drugs in carparks and seek solutions abroad.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “The health secretary has been clear he will leave no stone unturned to ensure women can get the HRT they need.
“This week we took decisive action to boost supply and make sure women can access HRT. We have appointed Madelaine McTernan as head of the HRT taskforce to address supply issues in the short and long term, and have issued serious shortage protocols on three HRT products to limit dispensing to three months’ supply and even out distribution of in-demand products.”
But Carolyn Harris, the Labour MP for Swansea East, chair of the menopause all-party parliamentary group and co-chair of the menopause taskforce, said even more women would rush to acquire HRT this week.
“Things are going to come up in that documentary that people are not going to believe. And we’ll have more and more women rushing to their doctor to get on HRT,” she told the Observer. “The more we find out about what happens to your body when you lose the hormones, the more we recognise that menopause does a huge amount of damage to a woman. But it’s very repairable damage.”
She accused the government of failing to say how it would get the drug into pharmacies. “There’s a shortage of HRT, and the government are paying lip service by coming forwards with a tsar … when in reality we know what the problem is and what they need to do about it.”
Harris, who is a member of the campaign group Menopause Mandate along with McCall and fellow broadcasters Mariella Frostrup and Penny Lancaster, called for a national formulary to increase availability.
She said she was inundated with “caseloads” of women whose GPs had declined to give them HRT, saying they didn’t need it or were not menopausal. The issue particularly affects women on low incomes who can’t go private, she said.
McCall’s first menopause documentary, Sex, Myths and the Menopause, in which the presenter talked about her own experiences, was watched by more than 2 million people and resulted in 22,000 GPs and nurses volunteering to complete a six-hour menopause course.
Kate Muir, who produced both films and is the author of Everything You Need to Know About the Menopause (but were too afraid to ask), said she believes the new documentary will encourage menopausal women to seek testosterone from their doctors too.
McCall is part of a wider menopause movement that is challenging the notion of “keep calm and carry on and shut up”. She added. “Women themselves until recently somehow felt they didn’t deserve this [HRT] and they felt ashamed of it and ashamed to ask for it. They felt it was a sign of weakness. And now it’s a sign of strength.”
The number of HRT prescriptions in England has doubled in the past five years to more than 500,000 a month. In previous years, shortages were blamed on manufacturing and supply chain problems, but the industry has put recent problems down to more women seeking the products.
Professor Martin Marshall, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said there had been an “exponential rise in demand” for transdermal oestrogen products in recent years, but the rise in women being prescribed HRT was “testament to GPs wanting to do their best for their patients”.
He said GPs were “highly trained to have open and sensitive conversations about all aspects of women’s health, including menopause”.
Paula Briggs, chair of the British Menopause Society, has warned of “evangelistic” misinformation shared on social media based on “a selective interpretation of clinical research papers”, which has included recommending higher doses of HRT or saying it’s safe for women with a history of breast cancer in their family.
“Unless you’ve done medical training and you understand, it’s easy to take a superficial approach,” she said, adding that some women felt pressured to take HRT when it might be better to try lifestyle changes first.
Katie Taylor, founder of the Latte Lounge, an online platform about midlife and the menopause, said demand had increased rapidly over the past six years. For many women, the McCall documentary could be “their first lightbulb moment”, she said.
Women are “very stressed, very anxious and a lot of them are desperate so they’re using half the amount [of HRT]”.
Some women were driving to numerous pharmacies trying to get equivalent products, seeking private solutions, and others are even trying to get it over the counter in Spain, she said.