Catherine MayerCo-founder of the Women's Equality PartySaturday 24 Nov 2018 1:30 pm
Today Ill go to a family party to celebrate my stepsister Sarah, on what would have been her 55th birthday.
She died just over two years ago, killed by ovarian cancer, a disease that owes its high mortality rate at least in part to a medical system in which there is wider awareness and better funding for the treatment of male conditions and symptoms.
Sarah was an activist, not just for her own disease, but also for wider gender equality in healthcare.
Its not hard to imagine how shed have reacted to the newly published study showing that female heart attack patients are at least twice as likely to die as male patients.
In an interview with The Times, the lead researcher, Professor Chris Gale at University of Leeds, estimated that this means at least 8,200 unnecessary deaths over a decade, and the figure could be as high as 20,000.
Each of these deaths is a tragedy, not just for the victims but for those who loved them and quite possibly depended on them, since women typically shoulder the majority of unpaid care work.
On reading this new research, the first question Sarah would have asked is: what can we do to stop this terrible waste?
One obvious answer is to treat womens symptoms of heart attack as seriously as men. Heart disease is the second most common cause of death for females, after dementia and Alzheimers.
Yet check the NHS website for heart attack and the top symptoms listed are chest pain, pain in other parts of the body and dizziness – symptoms that are common for all patients, but females are more likely than males to experience a heart attack without chest pain at all, and with symptoms including nausea, stomach pain or jaw pain.
Womens symptoms are more often written off as medically unexplained
The idea that a heart attack starts with someone clutching their chest and collapsing is reinforced by public health programmes and countless media portrayals, and it is putting women at risk of being misdiagnosed.
Small wonder, therefore, that women experiencing heart attack symptoms tend to wait for longer than men before calling 999.
When they do seek help, theyre less likely to get a diagnosis. Professor Gale suggests this may be down to unconscious bias – the inherent stereotypes about women that we, as a society, unwittingly hold on to.
To this end, womens symptoms are more often written off as medically unexplained and assumed to have an emotional rather than a physical basis.
Women are well aware of that bias. The systematic inequalities women experience in other spheres of life, which includes everything from the amount they are paid to the way they are taught about sex in school.
These inequalities are mirrored in healthcare. Historically, most pre-clinical research has been conducted on male animals, and this is replicated in human trials. As a result, women are up to 60% more likely have an adverse reaction to prescription drugs than men.
Just after Sarah died, I stood up and spoke through my tears at the Womens Equality Partys first ever party conference to propose a seventh core objective for the party in her memory: equal health.
This is what Sarah believed in. She was the Liberal Democrat candidate for Dover and Deal in 2015, and fought a brilliant campaign despite her diagnosis. She used her own experience to speak up not only for the NHS but on behalf of the gynaecological cancer research charity, the Eve Appeal.
She was in my thoughts when, at our second party conference this September, we voted in a new raft of policies to make equal health a reality.
Provisions included the establishment of a research institution to address the gaps in medical research for women, and reviewing the medical curricula learned by medical students so they look for the different ways females experience conditions and diseases.
Every death is a tragedy, but every preventable death represents a failure, not least of politics.
We must all work together to bring about change. Women must be encouraged and empowered to speak up about their health, and believed and ensured the appropriate treatment when they do.