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Health strategy needs thorough examination

Last week, the Government released a chunky package of long-term health directions, including the country’s first women’s health strategy.

The strategy promises a future health system built to cater for women, improving access to women-specific healthcare across the next 10 years.

The Government have to play longball here, because woman’s healthcare has been historically shoved under the rug, and it’s a long road ahead to pull it back from beneath the fringe.

“During the process, we heard stories of people who didn’t get the help they needed because of gender, orientation or ethnicity,” Minister of Health Ayesha Verrall said.

One participant who took part in strategy engagement said that, in their experience, women’s pain levels were often dismissed when presenting at emergency or general practices.

“Women often get a derogatory label or comments attached to medical notes about medical assistance sought even when treated.”

Research released from the University of Canterbury last year suggested that women with endometriosis – a condition where the lining of the uterus grows outside of the uterus – experience nearly a nine-year delay between symptoms and treatment.

The Ministry of Health estimates that one in ten women are affected by endometriosis, which accounts for 120,000 New Zealand women experiencing nine years of painful, mystery symptoms.

Endometriosis is just one of a raft of conditions, only experienced by women, which often elude diagnosis.

Another which springs to mind is Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome [PCOS], which sometimes needs a combination of blood tests and ultrasounds to diagnose.

PCOS plays havoc with hormone fluctuation, hair growth, weight, acne, and period pain.

I know of this through friends who have lived through countless doctor’s appointments, obsessive googling of symptoms and pain so intense, all they can do is curl up in a ball and howl.

This isn’t a shot at the nurses and doctors who work hard to make our medical system fair, just and functional.

It’s a reflection on the biases which have always existed for women within healthcare, and to far greater extents than we see today.

American gynaecologist Robert Wilson in 1966 infamous book Feminine Forever declared menopause as a disease of deficiency.

“No woman can escape the horror of this living decay.”

Wilson continues to state that “even the most valiant woman can no longer hide the fact that she is, in effect, no longer a woman”.

This statement references a normal, physiological process as a horrifying disease, and while redundant in the modern age it represents a medical system which hasn’t until to date, prioritised women.

In the wake of realising that women – and our differing physiology – exist outside of that realm, there’s a huge game of catch-up.

According to public health researcher at Australia’s Monash University Dr Kate Young, this past exclusion from medicinal and science knowledge production has left a huge gap.

“Essentially we’ve ended up with a healthcare system, among other things in society, that has been made by men for men.”

Endometriosis is highlighted in the strategy, as is menopause and conditions which look different between the genders, such as heart disease.

Change this vast is easier to write than materialise, but a definitive strategy is a good start.

Bella Cleary
Bella Cleary
Bella Cleary is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age, originally hailing from Wellington. She is interested in social issues and writes about the local arts and culture scene.

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