Scottish election 2021: Labour's women's manifesto would tackle health inequalities that can blight, or end, women’s lives – Jackie Baillie

It is hard to think of a year when health has been more at the forefront of our minds.

Covid has touched thousands of families, while even those without direct experience of the virus will have had other healthcare appointments postponed, or suffered the mental health effects of lockdown.

As we come out of the worst of the health crisis, rebuilding the NHS must be the priority for the next parliament. But we can’t go back to the old way of doing things.

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For too long, women’s health has long been overlooked and under-researched. Women are too often ignored or dismissed when they raise concerns.

Endometriosis affects one in ten women, but we’ve seen no improvement in diagnosis in a decade, and those with endometriosis are waiting an average of eight years for a diagnosis.

Thousands of women had their painful experience of mesh implants ignored or dismissed, and many are still waiting for support.

Health inequalities are especially stark for black and Asian women. Black women are four times as likely to die in childbirth compared to white women, and Asian women twice as likely.

Scottish Labour has set out our NHS recovery plan, which would get cancer treatment back on track, improve mental health care, and give carers the pay they deserve.

The NHS will need to catch up on screening for diseases like cancer after the Covid pandemic subsides (Picture: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images)

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I am committed to giving women’s health the priority it deserves, so today, I am launching the Scottish Labour’s Women’s Manifesto, which puts women’s healthcare front and centre.

While frontline NHS workers managed to keep our health service from being overwhelmed, choices by the SNP government mean that we have a mountain of missed appointments to catch up on.

Even before the pandemic, the SNP was failing to meet waiting time targets. The legal 12-week waiting-time guarantee had not been met once since it was introduced in 2012, and targets for access to child and adolescent mental health services have never been met at all.

The pandemic has meant that there were 151,701 fewer elective operations scheduled in 2020 compared with 2019.

Some of the starkest backlogs are in cervical screenings. In 2020, at least 180,000 cervical screening tests were delayed.

Today, I am proposing a catch-up initiative that would increase capacity and clear the backlog of appointments by the end of the financial year. To achieve this, we would commission increased cervical screening at sexual health clinics.

Over the last 20 years, cervical screening attendance has been falling. Covid has accelerated this trend, as many appointments were cancelled, but even before the pandemic one in four women did not attend when invited. We need to go beyond simply making appointments available.

To encourage more people to take part in cervical screenings, we would support the national roll-out of self-sampling. Self-testing is already on offer in Denmark and Australia, and it could play a vital role in encouraging more people to get a smear test in Scotland.

For many people, one of the most joyous, but also most stressful events of the last year will have been having a child.

Many who have given birth during the pandemic will have been isolated from support, and their babies missed out on opportunities to socialise which are so crucial to their development.

Scottish Labour is committed to ensuring that we don’t see a generation of children who have lost out.

Today, I am setting out plans to offer an extra visit from a health visitor at 18 months for babies born between January 2020 and May 2021.

This would increase the chances of early intervention in physical and mental health problems, and provide additional support to parents who may have missed out during lockdown.

As part of our wider mental health support, we would provide specific help to women experiencing post-natal depression.

And we would launch a ‘Babies meet Babies’ programme to promote socialisation and interaction by bringing together parents and carers of babies born after January 2020.

While pregnancy and cervical cancer are often associated with women’s health, we need to support conditions which are less commonly thought of as affecting women.

Dementia has recently become the leading cause of death for women in Scotland, and women are more likely to be affected by dementia than men.

There is still little awareness of women’s risk of heart disease – although heart disease kills seven women every day in Scotland. The common idea that heart disease affects men means women are less likely to recognise symptoms of a heart attack, and may delay seeking help.

To catch these conditions early, we need to ensure that Scotland’s NHS has the right specialists with a focus on women’s health conditions, such as those for lipoedema, as well as ensuring that specialist resources are allocated for GP training on women’s health.

Scottish Labour is also committed to re-balancing the unequal distribution in funding for research into health conditions affecting women.

Our pioneering Women’s Health Fund would support research, advice and services for predominantly women-specific conditions, such as female heart disease, thyroid symptoms, and conditions such as endometriosis.

We would support the collection of data across the NHS to support research, to allow for better planning for women’s health services.

In partnership with universities, we would create two new professorships in women’s health in Scotland, to mark a tidal shift in our approach to women’s health.

As we come through the collective trauma of Covid, it is not enough to go back to the way things were before. Arguing over the constitution while our NHS loses funding. Allowing women to miss out on diagnoses or treatment due to under-resourced and under-researched conditions.

Scotland deserves better. Scottish Labour will bring a better approach to women’s health.

Jackie Baillie is Scottish Labour’s deputy leader and her party’s candidate in Dumbarton

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