I do wish Professor Anna Glasier OBE, who has a distinguished career in women’s health, well in her new post. But I also wish the post had been filled a long time ago.
The role was announced 18 months ago but last summer came and went and so did the swallows without any sign of progress in either interviewing or appointing someone to this important position. It took an outcry from health charities and the Labour opposition to get the idea rolling on from a press release to the appointment of an actual person.
It then took until last December for First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to prod Health Secretary Humza Yousaf from slumber with a promise that there would be an update in the New Year. I reckon the last days of January just about scrape under the wire of that extended deadline but it still smacks of lip service to women’s health.
The health inequalities which leave women at the wrong end of the scales and with worse outcomes than men are a long-standing problem. Professor Glasier’s in-tray is already stacked high and women’s health outcomes are being worsened and inequalities amplified by the current crisis in the NHS and the hangover of the Covid pandemic.
While the entire health service is feeling the lasting effects of the pandemic, it was primarily women who were working on the frontline of the NHS and social care during the long months of lockdown and social distancing. As a result, the women who were responsible for fighting the pandemic and keeping us safe are disproportionately suffering from long Covid – although that is being disregarded by a government that took 18 months to appoint a health champion.
Add to that the long waiting times for cervical and breast cancer treatment, the long wait for colposcopies – sometimes over a year – and the long-standing neglect of women’s health conditions and you see why it took the Health Secretary so long to find someone willing to take on the role.
Professor Glasier’s appointment is meant to acknowledge the lack of recognition of women’s voices in the debate on health. She faces a daunting task because, as we all know, when things are bad across the board, women will pay the harshest price.
In the current health crisis, women in the most deprived parts of Scotland will be hit hardest of all, and these are places where women’s life expectancy is already on average 10.5 years lower than women in the least deprived areas.
For as long as services are stuck on the brink of disaster, the inequalities that plague our healthcare system and shame Scotland will be entrenched. I fear women’s healthcare will continue to be neglected and the most deprived communities will continue to be failed.
We can already see the toll this crisis is taking on essential treatments. Both anecdotal and statistical evidence show this is a scandal which threatens to cost lives.
The number of women being diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer is rising. The latest waiting times for cancer treatment showed that 45 per cent of eligible patients were not treated within the target time of 62 days. In fact, the target has never been met in a decade.
The rollout of self-sampling for cervical screening is also far too slow and rife with inequalities. In NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, there are women who have been waiting for more than a year for colposcopies. Women are being left in limbo, untreated and in pain.
The government’s self-congratulatory update on the Women’s Health Plan, which was published to coincide with Professor Glasier’s appointment, barely scratches the surface of the problem. This summer, it will be two years since the government published their Women’s Health Plan but the SNP are not even delivering the basics on women’s healthcare, never mind tackling deep-rooted inequalities.
The plan was supposed to be a chance to transform women’s healthcare, and to finally give parity to conditions affecting women which have gone overlooked and under-researched for far too long. It was meant to learn from women’s lived experiences and to build a healthcare system that truly meets their needs.
However, the self-appraisal issued by the Scottish Government appears to aim itself primarily at addressing health issues like the menopause and reproductive health, areas which are important in themselves. But the vital part of addressing failings in health provision for women, in closing the gaps which exist between the treatment of, and the survival rates for, men and women with major illnesses, is lacking. That is where the work needs to be done and that should be the priority.
It is obvious that Professor Glasier’s appointment is not the end of the fight to improve women’s healthcare in Scotland – it is just the beginning. There is a huge task ahead to tackle these deep-rooted inequalities and to end the neglect of women’s health conditions. But it took the SNP a year and a half to make an appointment, how long must Scottish women wait for them to deliver the rest of the plan?
Jackie Baillie is the MSP for Dumbarton, the deputy leader of the Scottish Labour, and her party’s spokesperson for health