Today, a new policy report, initiated and funded by Bayer, that explores the realities of women’s sexual and reproductive healthcare provision in the UK was launched during the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sexual and Reproductive Health (APPG on SRH), run by the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH), under the theme of ‘The Women’s Health Strategy: One Year On’.
Developed by Bayer, the report “Informed, heard, empowered: Placing women at the heart of reproductive health policy” uncovers the systemic barriers and challenges faced by women when accessing reproductive healthcare services at every key stage of the life course – that is Teenage years, Reproductive years and Menopause and beyond. It emphasises on the opportunity to build upon the foundations of the Government’s Women’s Health Strategy to deliver tangible actions that help transform reproductive healthcare provision.
A woman’s reproductive years could last for nearly 40 years, however, in England, only 6% of women say they learn about intimate health through school or university education.4 Despite welcome national prioritisation of women’s health, reproductive healthcare continues to fall through the cracks after severe disruption during the pandemic. Insights drawn from recently published Sexual and Reproductive Health Activity Data (SRHAD) reveal that in 2021-2022 the number of specialist clinics offering long-acting reversible contraception (LARC)* fell from more than 850 in 2015 to fewer than 400, representing a decrease of over 50%.5 Fragmented commissioning arrangements have led to over a third (34%) of GP practices only being funded to provide LARC for contraceptive purposes and not for other gynaecological conditions like heavy menstrual bleeding (HMB).6 A severe postcode lottery creates vast inequalities in access to LARC – in some areas uptake exceeds 85 per 1,000 women, while in other areas the same rate falls below 5 per 1,000 women.7 These challenges are also mirrored later in the life course – according to the British Menopause Society, only 62 of 54,024 GPs in England and Scotland are recognised menopause specialists.8
Dame Diana Johnson DBE MP, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sexual and Reproductive Health, who hosted the AGM today, said: “We are now one year on from the publication of the Women’s Health Strategy, and I am pleased to see the recent progress that has been made in this area – from the telemedicine pathway for early medical abortion being made permanent, to the appointment of a Women’s Health Ambassador to provide much-needed leadership and plans around the establishment of Women’s Health Hubs. We know there is still much work to be done, as we have heard at today’s AGM of the many challenges that lie ahead, including budget cuts, fragmented commissioning, and workforce issues that continue to negatively affect women’s ability to access reproductive health services.”
“In this context and particularly given the need for dedicated national policy leadership on access to contraception, I am pleased to welcome Bayer’s policy report setting out recommendations to enhance provision of reproductive healthcare at critical stages of the life course. I look forward to leading the APPG’s work, which focused towards protecting and promoting SRH rights in Parliament, and supporting that of the partners working in this sector, to ensure that all women have full control their reproductive lives,” she added.
The Bayer report capitalises on the opportunity of the Women’s Health Strategy and integrated care agenda and outlines practical actions that cover the key stages of a woman’s life. Geared towards ensuring women – of all ages and backgrounds – are informed about their options, feel their voices is heard by the healthcare services, and are empowered to make decisions about their reproductive health, the report proposes to:
- enhance relationships and sex education (RSE) curriculum in school that embeds vulval anatomy and vaginal health as a core aspect of physical and intimate health education
- reverse a decade of fragmentation and growing inequality in access to contraceptive services through removing barriers to collaborative commission and workforce expansion, including replication of the Women’s Health Hub model to streamline and enhance access to LARC across contraceptive and gynaecological needs, introducing the Fair Fees for Fitting to set a national fee for LARC
- adopt a whole-system approach where all women go through menopause and beyond are supported in family life and the workplace with appropriately trained healthcare professionals and employers
*Long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) methods are widely accepted to be some of the most effective and cost-effective contraceptive methods available and include intrauterine system (IUS)/intrauterine device (IUD), progesterone-only subdermal implants, and progesterone-only injectable contraceptives. IUS methods are not only effective in preventing unplanned pregnancy but are also the first-line recommended treatment for HMB.