A new study found that 23% of women and people with gynae organs have felt 'not listened to' during medical appointments about their reproductive health. We explore why this is, and ask a GP for their advice on being heard

Many of us will understand the importance of taking our reproductive health seriously – and yet, research by the gynecological cancer charity The Eve Appeal, has recently highlighted that nearly a quarter of women and people with gynae organs have felt ‘not listened to’ when seeking medical help from a healthcare professional.

Additionally, of the 72% of women who have had an appointment for their reproductive health, 23% felt they weren’t taken seriously and felt disappointed by how their healthcare concern was handled, and 20% felt like they were raising a ‘trivial issue’.

Coming just after endometriosis awareness month in March – sparking conversation about a condition which, on average, takes eight years to diagnose, despite affecting one in 10 women in the UK – as well as Channel 4's The Black Maternity Scandal, which investigated the increase in the likelihood of death during pregnancy and after birth for Black women, the findings from The Eve Appeal study echo a similar sentiment.

“It’s always disappointing to hear that patients feel that they have not been heard by their doctor, or any health professional,” Dr Clara Russell, a GP with nearly 20 years of experience and founder of Noggin says as she reflects on the study. “Unfortunately, I’m not surprised that these are the findings.

“The reasons for this are complex. An issue for both patient and doctor is time – 10 minutes is often not enough to go through the wide range of symptoms that may be relating to reproductive health.

“Symptoms can be complex and masked as something else, such as pelvic pain that is disguised as abdominal in origin, or irregular periods and fatigue that may be linked to stress and mental health,” Dr Russell explains.

“From my experience of talking to patients about when they haven’t felt listened to, one of the recurrent concerns is that reproductive symptoms are attributed to a pre-existing condition instead of being initially investigated as something new. If patients have co-existing conditions and present with symptoms relating to reproductive health, these symptoms can sometimes all be tied together as one and this can leave patients feeling frustrated.

“Often, there are a lot of emotions attached to discussing these matters – fear, embarrassment, shame – and this can make it difficult for a patient to bring up and for a doctor to handle sensitively, especially in such a short space of time.”

doctor and patient

This sense of stigma that can come attached to issues of reproductive health is at the heart of The Eve Appeal’s Get Lippy campaign – which aims to break down taboos and shame around gynae health, to empower women to understand their bodies and to get any worrying symptoms checked at the earliest opportunity. Partnering up with Tesco and lip care brand CARMEX, products sold during the campaign will donate 10% to The Eve Appeal’s work – continuing the conversation, and raising awareness of gynecological health and the importance of persevering with appointments.

“Women should never be made to feel like they aren’t being listened to when they raise issues relating to their body. It is vital we break down taboos that surround women’s health and address the problem of women feeling that their concerns are seen as trivial or unimportant,” says Nadine Dorries, Minister for Women’s Health. “It’s brilliant to see the Get Lippy campaign empowering people with tips for getting the most out of healthcare appointments and working with the health services to provide better gynae support.

“I am committed to creating a health and care system that works for all women by launching the first government-led Women’s Health Strategy. I urge all women to come forward and to share their experiences through our call for evidence, so we can put your voices at the center of your care.”

The campaign highlights the extent of this issue, and for those who are unsure how to approach appointments about reproductive health, Dr Russell has four tips for being heard:

1. Prepare

10 minutes goes quickly. Take a list of what you want to discuss and prioritise with your doctor what is the most important to get through.

2. Try to let go of embarrassment

Your doctor has seen and heard it all before, tell them if you are embarrassed and let them reassure you.

3. Keep a symptom diary

Pelvic pain, periods, erection worries, concerns about mood, and tiredness are often intermittent, so keeping some notes about when the symptoms have been an issue for you will help your doctor get a better idea of what might be useful to do next.

4. Reflect on your appointment

If you leave the room and feel you haven’t been listened to or you haven’t got what you needed, pause and reflect. What did you get from the appointment and what was missing? If you think you need more time, book another appointment, and don’t feel ‘bad’ about going back to cover your concerns again. If you really felt unhappy, try booking to see a different doctor in the practice.

Working through the stigma and taboo of reproductive health isn’t easy – it’s something many have lived with for a lifetime – but doing so is vital for the sake of our health. For more information and tips, and to learn more about the Get Lippy campaign, head to eveappeal.org.uk.

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