We need to open up the discussion and remove the stigma that still surrounds the menopause. At present, approximately 13 million of us in the UK are either perimenopausal or post-menopausal: almost a fifth of the entire population.
On World Menopause Day in 2018, I made a speech in Parliament calling on the Government to commit to make a difference to the lives of all women experiencing symptoms of the menopause. I spoke of the need for changes in the curriculum to better educate our young people; improved public education to help women who are suffering and those closest to them; better training for GPs to ensure that women are correctly diagnosed and given the right treatments; and mandatory workplace menopause policies, so that women may continue to work through what can be the most difficult time of their lives.
With many pressure groups and the media now shining a light on issues to do with menopause, we are starting to talk about it more, but now we also need to start taking action. Education is key here, both public education—so that women understand what is happening to their bodies and feel confident in making informed decisions about the path they choose—and professional education, which is severely lacking.
A recent survey on menopause support revealed the shocking truth about training in medical schools. An astounding 41% of UK universities do not have mandatory menopause education on the curriculum. Menopause will, at some point, directly affect half of the population, and yet it is completely overlooked when training the people that we will all turn to for help.
Women are suffering unnecessarily, and while some barely notice any changes, for others the suffering is unbearable—stressful, debilitating and completely life-changing. Despite that, many doctors complete their training and leave university with absolutely no education about menopause at all. I am fairly confident that no other medical condition set to impact the lives of more than 50% of the population would be left out in that way.
The Royal College of General Practitioners states that menopause is included in the curriculum, although not mandatory or standardised. Bearing in mind that we know more than 40% are not providing mandatory training, however, women who are suffering and turn to their GP for help cannot be assured that the doctor they visit will be competent in recognising their symptoms, let alone to provide them with the treatment plan and medication they need. In our public engagement survey, Gillian shared her experience, saying that her GP told her to ask her mother as her experience would be the same:
“I walked out with a leaflet…no support, no advice, no understanding”.
Far too many women are still being misdiagnosed and prescribed antidepressants, and they suffer extreme symptoms without the correct treatment and support. This needs to change. GPs should follow up-to-date guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence on the menopause and hormone replacement therapy, and they should recommend such treatment if it is appropriate. Sadly, far too many women are denied this path, because many doctors are unaware or ill-informed. Even those who are lucky enough to visit a GP who recognises their symptoms and understands the benefits of HRT treatment still face barriers.
In Scotland and Wales, prescriptions are free to everyone, but unfortunately women in England are forced to pay £9.35 per item. For some, their treatment may include multiple items every time. Lisa responded to our survey by saying:
“Free HRT prescriptions are needed. I’m currently charged two prescription charges for one box of medication.”
Lesley said: “It’s a process of elimination getting the correct medication. It’s so expensive and I have found it very difficult to pay for the prescriptions.”
That is not something to be taken lightly. It is not just the odd hot flush or moment of forgetfulness. Menopausal symptoms can ruin women’s lives, and until something is done to improve the standard of diagnosis and treatment, they will continue to ruin even more.
Women deserve so much better. They are giving up their careers and ending relationships because of the severity of their symptoms and the impact on their physical and mental wellbeing. It is no coincidence that suicide rates for women peak between the ages of 45 and 54, which is the average age that most women reach the menopause or experience perimenopausal symptoms. This cannot carry on. I do not want to be standing here in another two-and-a-half years talking about the same things.
Education on the menopause, which is slowly being incorporated into the curriculum in secondary schools, is a positive step forward, but it is just one part of a much bigger picture. Public health guidance, standardised compulsory training for those in the medical professions, and fully funded HRT treatments and workplace policies need to follow. Women should not feel inferior or incapable of doing their job because of the effects of the menopause on their health and wellbeing, but, sadly, too many do.
The situation could be so easily rectified. Simple changes in the workplace, such as flexible working hours, relaxed uniform policies and adaptations to the working environment, could all make such a difference. Dinah talked about this in her survey response. She explained that in her workplace, she was “surprised to find no menopause policy whereas we have policies for most conceivable events.”
She added that she told her manager about her menopausal symptoms and how she felt that they were interfering with her capacity to do her job. She said:
“I was offered no support, we just talked about how I could stop making mistakes.”
The Government has alluded to that in their call for evidence for the women’s health strategy. One of the areas being considered is maximising women’s health in the workplace, with menopause being one of the female-specific conditions mentioned that impacts on women’s participation in work. I urge anyone affected to complete the public survey before the deadline of 13 June, and details can be found on the Government website.
None of the things I have mentioned are big on their own. They are all easy to rectify, but the lack of them all is having a devastating impact on so many lives. We have the power to change that, and we must seize the opportunity. I plan to set up an all-party parliamentary group on menopause support over the coming months. I have already had colleagues from across the House express an interest in joining, and I would be delighted to hear from more MPs and peers—both male and female—who I know share my passion to make a difference.
Women should not be left to suffer through a lack of awareness, inadequate support or financial restraints. Every woman experiencing menopausal or perimenopausal symptoms should be confident that they will be able to access the right treatment and support in every aspect of their lives. Women deserve to see medical schools providing appropriate training so doctors can diagnose and prescribe appropriately. Women deserve to have mandatory menopause policies in their place of work. They deserve to be given the reassurance that they can access treatment without worrying about how to pay for it and they deserve to be assured of all the support and care that they need. Women have been suffering in silence for far too long. This debate has given them a voice. Now it is up to us to listen and act.