Dr Edward Morris
President, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists
The pandemic has negatively impacted many areas of women’s health, but in other ways it’s brought important issues to the forefront and forced through advancements in healthcare.
This year has been an incredibly challenging year for the healthcare sector and sadly the ripple effect will have been felt by many women across the UK. Women with painful and debilitating gynaecological conditions such as endometriosis and fibroids will have had their operations delayed. Pregnant women will have faced difficult hospital appointments without a partner by their side, and women seeking fertility treatment will have had to put their lives on hold while they wait for the green light.
Early medical abortions at home
It became clear at the beginning of the pandemic that one barrier facing women was their access to early medical abortions (EMA). In March 2020, we urged the Government to change the law so that women could access EMA at home. This was approved in England, with Scotland and Wales following suit.
Over 40,000 women have now had an early medical abortion at home and the evidence shows it a safe, more effective – and crucially – a kinder service for women.
At the beginning of the pandemic, 500 women per day were travelling to a clinic, sometimes long distance, to access abortion care. This was putting them at risk of infection and transmission of COVID-19. Since this change in regulation, waiting times for abortion care have fallen and women are able to receive care much earlier in their pregnancy.
Cervical cancer screening
A recent survey by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust found that one in 10 women ‘put off’ getting a smear test during the pandemic over concerns about going to the doctors. This is very concerning when pre-pandemic the rates of screening were at their lowest level in two decades.
We supported calls by the charity to make cervical screening more accessible and welcomed the introduction of HPV self-testing kits as part of the cervical screening programme. In countries where this is already offered, there has been significant success and the screening uptake amongst all women has increased.
Delays to fertility treatment
For many women, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant severe delays to accessing fertility tests and treatment. This has had serious consequences for women who are reaching the age limit of being ineligible for IVF on the NHS. After a campaign by several organisations to ‘Stop the Clock’, the NHS issued guidance urging trusts to extend IVF deadlines.
We don’t know what 2021 will bring, but it’s vital that women’s and girls’ rights remain firmly on the agenda while we hopefully begin a return to normal.