A Lost Opportunity: My Reflections on a Women’s Health Conference

At the end of last year, Research Ambassador and Collaborate Essex member Marianne attended a conference on women’s health hosted by the King’s Fund. In this month’s Research Reflections blog, she reflects on the conference, issues that arose during the day, and why responses to women’s health concerns must improve.

My name is Marianne and I volunteer for Healthwatch Essex as a Collaborate Essex forum member and a Research Ambassador. Within these roles, I aim to offer helpful insights drawing from my disabilities and lived experience. I recently attended the King’s Fund ‘Putting a Spotlight on Women’s Health’ conference. It was a bit of a mixed bag as an event. There were some good points. I felt that the sheer amount of data that was shared was incredibly interesting, lots of statistics and figures showed disparity in care and health equity, they had mainly female speakers and a quite spectacular lasagne at lunch. However, I did spend the train journey home feeling a little flat and felt that I should explore why.

A disappointing aspect of the women’s health conference was the deafening absence of men in the room. I believe I counted a meagre five. A conference simply about ‘health’ would have drawn plenty of men to attend but use the ‘W’ word and all of a sudden, they either seem to lose interest or assume it isn’t for them. It was mentioned by a few of the speakers on the day and the male chair at the beginning apologised and felt he shouldn’t have been given the position but did explain he was filling in for his female colleague at short notice.

I was really let down by the absence of any mention of fatphobia and the often-fatal effects it has. Time and time again you hear about women going to the doctors, whether it be a GP or consultant, and they’re told they should just go away and lose weight. They are denied surgery on grounds of weight, symptoms are not explored, diagnoses are delayed or never reached. Women are constantly not being listened to if they exist in a larger body. I, at one point, made my frustrations known on the Slido app, comments from which were being broadcast on a big screen in the conference room, and it seemed that a lot of people there agreed with me also. I got chatting to a woman in the queue for the aforementioned lasagne who was also feeling just as let-down, albeit with less of an air of resignation than I could muster.

Later in the day, I watched a panel of about 5 or 6 people talking about their various thoughts on health and care. One woman, who I will call Sue, was there to share her lived experience as a wheelchair user and how she navigates the NHS. She prefixed her speaking time by saying she’d made notes and would refer to them as she went because she suffers from brain fog. She spoke about her interactions with her GP surgery, using an example of a telephone appointment she had in which the GP went on to tell Sue she would feel better if she lost weight and recommended she try Couch to 5K. Sue reflected on how this had made her feel and how it could have been avoided if the GP had even just glanced at her notes beforehand. The panel chair then interrupted Sue mid flow and said she felt the GP on the panel should have a right to reply. I felt this was totally unnecessary, not only because Sue has brain fog which means any interruptions make it incredibly difficult to recalibrate your thoughts, but also because Sue’s experience of poor care should not be up for debate. The GP then went on to point out that all GPs are under stress, that they only get 7 minutes to talk to their patients and that they make human errors; all of which sounded incredibly defensive and completely undermined Sue’s lived experience. As a disabled woman navigating the NHS myself, this was all too familiar a response. At first, I was incensed, feeling the time-honoured anger bubbling inside me from years of almost identical miserable treatment. But then it just made me feel tired. Tired that even at a women’s health event, in which the often-fatal effects of medical gaslighting had been brought up numerous times, we watched in real time, a medical professional gaslight, and simply not listen to, a patient.

As the event drew to a close, I was struck mainly by the lost opportunity. I felt it could have been so much more uplifting and empowering than it was. It could have shone a light on what is going wrong and made the attendees feel empowered by our collective frustrations and anger to speak up more about the inequities we all see daily, especially the medical professionals in attendance. It’s so important to have events highlighting women’s struggles and I definitely haven’t been put off going to more, I just hope the next one is a little more inspiring.

Marianne, Research Ambassador