A review published this month has found that vaginal mesh implants have caused many women to suffer in agony for years. These women endured terrible chronic pain, infections and nerve damage after the meshes – a netlike material made of plastic that’s meant to support muscles and organs in the pelvis – cut through their vaginal walls or pierced their bladders.
Worse still, when these women informed doctors of their pain, they were doubted, ignored and belittled. In fact, the review found that the UK’s health system has a broader habit of ignoring women. It described a culture in which “anything and everything” women said about their discomfort was put down to the menopause.
These finding are, sadly, not surprising. My own experience is that our health system frequently downplays women’s pain. In Parliament, last year, I spoke about the dismissive way that doctors treated me when a cyst on one of my ovaries ruptured and caused an infection. I rushed to A&E in excruciating pain but was then sent away with painkillers and told that “cysts rupture in women all the time”.
As I said at the time, it seems that women’s health issues get less attention precisely because they only affect women. This must change.
I’ve joined the review’s authors and campaigners in calling for the government to appoint a Patient Safety Commissioner who would speak on behalf of patients, investigate patient complaints and hold organisations to account. This Commissioner should prioritise closing the gender pain gap and ensure that women’s health is treated much more seriously in the NHS. They would sit outside the healthcare system and be accountable to Parliament through the Health and Social Care Select Committee.
We need more research, better treatment, and greater discussion of women’s health. And we need to listen to, and believe, women when they talk about their pain.