Health Secretary Victoria Atkins has shared her personal experience of the “darker corners” of the NHS as she vowed to improve maternity services and care for women who have experienced traumatic births.
Ms Atkins outlined her priorities for women’s health in 2024 at the inaugural Women’s Health Summit in London on Wednesday.
The event marked the second year of the Women’s Health Strategy, a 10-year blueprint aiming to break down obstacles women face in healthcare, with Ms Atkins describing it as a “feminist’s Christmas”.
She said her five-point plan includes “maternity care that every mother can have faith in, better care for menstrual problems, more women’s health hubs offering more treatments, improving fairness and tackling inequalities and disparities and more research into the health needs of women”.
“Women’s health and maternity care is one of my top priorities as Health Secretary, because we are more than half the population and our healthcare matters, not just to us as individuals, but to our families and wider society,” Ms Atkins added.
She also shared her own personal experience with delegates and recalled her pregnancy as someone with type 1 diabetes.
“I want to reform our NHS and care system to make it faster, simpler and fairer for all of us and that includes women. Because for me, this is personal,” she said.
“The NHS diagnosed me with type one diabetes at the age of three and so I have seen the very best of the NHS, but I’ve also seen some of its darker corners.
“One of the one of those darker corners was when I was pregnant, as the clinicians in the room will understand, pregnancy with type one diabetes can be a very medicalised process.
“There came a point in the pregnancy where it became clear that baby was going to have to be delivered early.”
Ms Atkins said the hospital looked after her “amazingly well” but did not have the facilities to treat someone in early pregnancy with her complications.
“And so they put me in a ward with women who had just given birth – literally rushed from theatre – and who had had very traumatic experiences,” she added.
“You will understand how deeply worrying actually, and frightening, it was to be lying in that ward with women who had gone through, frankly, a hellish experience. Who were in agony, who were needing very, very urgent medical treatment.
“And for me to be there ready to have my baby. Looking back, I know that everybody’s doing their best, but I desperately want to ensure that women who are expecting and who find themselves needing a bit of extra help that they’re not in that situation and they’re not facing the fear that I faced.”
Ms Atkins pledged her “full backing” to NHS measures to end “preventable maternal and baby deaths”, which includes the creation of Maternal Medicine Networks in England.
She said this would require “a laser like focus on birth trauma”.
“Some mums endure simply unacceptable care, and live with the consequences of that trauma for the rest of their lives. Some have told their stories in the media, harrowing experiences of tears prolapses, operations and agony.
“And they’ve done this because they want to shine a light on the impact of such experiences.”
Ms Atkins used Conservative MP Theo Clarke, who suffered a traumatic birth and is now leading an inquiry into birth trauma on behalf of Parliament, as an example.
She encouraged any mother who had a traumatic birth to share their story with the inquiry.
The Health Secretary also pledged that specialist mental health services will be available to women in all areas of England by March, and every women who gives birth will be offered a check up with their GP within eight weeks, focusing solely on mental and physical health.
Mrs Clarke said: “I am absolutely delighted at these measures and many others that will help and support new mums and recognise what they have gone through so that what happened to me and many others across the country does not happen again.”
Other priorities for the Women’s Health Strategy in 2024 include tackling problem periods and endometriosis, a condition when tissue similar to the lining of the uterus grows outside the uterus.
Ms Atkins said for some women “periods are a time of severe pain and exhaustion, which they come to dread”.
The women’s health hubs programme will also be expanded, aiming to have at least one fully functioning facility in every local area.
Elsewhere, a £50 million National Institute of Health and Care Research (NIHR) “challenge” will explore solutions to tackle maternity disparities.
The call is expected to go out to research teams this spring.