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Addressing unmet needs in women's health

Women in Academic Medicine Conference
Female patient with nurse
"In terms of meeting the healthcare needs of women, it is clear there is much room for improvement... the specific health needs of women can too often be overlooked."

Professor Dame Parveen Kumar
Chair of the BMA's Board of Science

In general, women and girls have greater health and social care requirements in comparison to men across their lifetime, although there are indications that health and social care services are not meeting their specific health needs.

The BMA has a key role in ensuring that the health needs of the population are met. For example, we recently called for an end to period poverty.

Women make up 51% of the overall population and 47% of the working population. As well as bearing children, women provide the majority of informal, unpaid care for children, sick or frail older relatives, and increasingly both.

Women are more likely to come into contact with health services than men, but also more likely to miss appointments due to their caring responsibilities.

As the landmark 2010 Marmot Review into health inequalities in England found, there are systematic gender differences in a range of health outcomes. Although women live longer than men, they spend a greater proportion of their life in poor health. Taking a gender-focussed approach to assessing healthcare provision is therefore vital to ensure we are getting services right for women.

Key areas for action

  • Ensuring the healthcare system can respond to gender differences and provide gender-specific services
  • Establishing integrated services to respond to complex needs throughout the life-course
  • Enabling and promoting better health outcomes through improved education
  • Removing stigma around women's health issues, and empowering women and girls
  • Tackling the social determinants of health

The following papers - each authored by experts in their field - explore in detail some of the major unmet needs in women's health, with recommendations for both policy-makers and healthcare practitioners.

The first five papers have a UK focus, whilst the sixth helps to situate these issues within the global context.

Download the full report (PDF) 


It's not OK - barriers to women in accessing healthcare

Helen Fidler, consultant gastroenterologist, blogs about an experience she had with a patient from her outpatient clinic who faced multiple barriers when attending her appointment.  

 Read the blog

  • Tackling violence against women

    Outlines the scale of the problem of gender-based violence and some of the particular challenges that exist, and the role of healthcare professionals in identifying abuse and referring cases.

    Key messages

    • Responding to the scale of the problem is the largest challenge facing health care - further improvements are needed in terms of multi-agency working and information sharing. 
    • Particular challenges exist around responding to non-recent violence and abuse, non-physical forms of abuse, and working with an ageing population. 
    • The healthcare system is used by those perpetrating violence and abuse as well as those experiencing it. GPs are particularly likely to come into contact with perpetrators and need training and resources to make appropriate referrals.

    Authored by:

    Professor Nicole Westmarland
    Professor of Criminology and Director of the Durham University Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse (CRiVA)

    Dr Hannah Bows
    Assistant Professor of Law and Deputy Director of CRiVA

    Download the report (PDF)


  • Cancer in women

    Examines the increase in cancer incidence in women which is responsible for almost 25% of female deaths, outlines preventable risk factors and differences in rates amongst more deprived women, and highlights the role of health professionals in helping women to recognise signs and symptoms of cancer.

    Key messages

    • More focus is required to prevent cancers in women, especially through smoking cessation programmes and tackling rising obesity.
    • It is imperative to have the right diagnostic capacity and resources for the projected rise in need for services to make sure this is not a cause of avoidable delays in their diagnosis and treatment.
    • Health professionals have a crucial role to play in helping women to recognise signs and symptoms of cancer, to be aware of the benefits of the national screening programmes and encourage awareness and adoption of NICE guidelines amongst fellow professionals.

    Authored by:

    Sarah Woolnough
    Executive Director, Policy and Information, Cancer Research UK

    Download the report (PDF)


  • Reproductive health and wellbeing

    Highlights the importance of reproductive health to wellbeing, recognises the variation and differentiation in women's reproductive healthcare needs over the life-course, and calls for an integrated health system response.

    Key messages

    • Reproductive health is vital for wellbeing, to prevent morbidity and maintain economic productivity. It encompasses pregnancy-related health, some aspects of sexual health and health unrelated to pregnancy.
    • Age-appropriate education for reproductive health should start as soon as understanding develops and be continued into adulthood.
    • Universal care in reproductive health is important in meeting women's contraceptive, preconception, screening and menopause care needs.
    • Provision of socially or medically complex reproductive health care, such as fertility treatment, later abortion and menopause care, should be distributed in a way that prioritises those with the greatest need to help reduce inequalities in access and outcomes.
    • Current indicators of reproductive health are not adequate for measuring reproductive wellbeing at population level. New measures are being developed but further work is needed to evaluate and implement them

    Authored by:

    Dr Sue Mann
    Consultant in Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) and Medical Expert in Reproductive Health at Public Health England

    Professor Judith Stephenson
    Margaret Pyke Professor of Sexual & Reproductive health UCL EGA Institute for Women's Health

    Download the report (PDF)


  • Women's mental health

    Explains why policies, services and practice need to be gender informed, co-designed by women and underpinned by clear leadership and accountability.

    Key messages

    • Women and girls have distinct and specific needs and, therefore, policies, services and practice need to be gender-informed.
    • Clear leadership and accountability is required to ensure gender sensitive policy and provision.
    • Data collection and reporting should take account of differences between women and men and include gender as a standard variable.
    • Policies, services and therapeutic options should be co-designed with women with experience of poor mental health.

    Authored by:

    Professor Kathryn M. Abel
    Centre for Women’s Mental Health, Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health Sciences, University of Manchester and Greater Manchester Mental Health

    Dr Karen Newbigging
    Health Services Management Centre and Institute for Mental Health, University of Birmingham

    Download the report (PDF)


  • Health inequalities and women

    Explores the inequalities in health between women which are related to socio-economic status, ethnicity and geographic region, and calls for greater understanding of the effect of these social and economic factors on women's lives by the health workforce.

    Key messages

    • There are clear and stark inequalities in health between women, which are related to socio-economic status, ethnicity and geographic region.
    • Across different stages of women's lives there are different social and economic factors which drive health and associated health inequalities; including experiences during early childhood, education, family building and working life and through retirement and into older age.
    • The broad health workforce must take full account of the social and economic factors which shape women's lives and health at different stages of life.

    Authored by:

    Dr Jessica Allen
    Deputy director, UCL Institute of Health Equity

    Dr Flavia Sesti
    Civil servant, Italian National Institute for Health, Migration and Poverty (NIHMP)

    Download the report (PDF)


  • Global women's health

    Introduces the key issues in international women's health in the context of the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals and demonstrates the improvements that could be made to women's health through improved access to, and quality of, healthcare.

    Key messages

    • Ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education
    • Mandatory relationship and sex education
    • Contraception available over the counter at pharmacies
    • Access to free and safe medical and surgical abortion care

    Authored by:

    Professor Lesley Regan
    President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Head of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at St Mary's Hospital, Imperial College London

    Download the report (PDF)


  • Featured in BBC Women's Hour

    As part of our women's health project, our BMA committee members feature in BBC Women's Hour episodes to talk about our reports and the need for a more effective healthcare system to address women's needs.

    Listen to Dr Anthea Mowat

    Listen to Hannah Barham-Brown

    Listen to Professor Dame Parveen Kumar