Minister of State for Health & Social Care supports campaign to raise menopause awareness in House of Commons debate

Published: 19th February 2019

During the debate, the Minister for Care (Caroline Dinenage) said: "I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) on securing this debate on health services and the menopause, and I want to start by celebrating the fact that we are discussing this subject. For too long the things that only affect women have been taboo; they have been brushed under the carpet—they have not been discussed in this place. One of the most magnificent of the many great side-effects of having a more gender-equal ​place is that we begin to discuss these subjects and those last taboos get addressed properly. It is wonderful to hear and see the men present in this Chamber who also care passionately about this subject; that must be celebrated too.

My hon. Friend has been a passionate and highly effective campaigner for improved awareness of the menopause and better support for women who are dealing with some of the difficult symptoms. I am very grateful and supportive of her work on this issue; in my eyes she is an absolute hero. I believe it is vital that we provide effective support and treatment for women with menopausal symptoms. It is of the utmost importance that we continue to work to improve that and to tackle the misconceptions attached to the menopause.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of HRT and expressed her concern that some GPs are not prescribing or recommending it to women who need it. No two menopauses are exactly alike and GPs play an important role in ensuring patients are given treatment that is appropriate to them. It is worth bearing in mind that the menopause is a natural stage in a woman’s life, and that many women will experience the menopause without troublesome symptoms or the need for treatment. Where symptoms do arise, HRT can be very effective in relieving them, and GPs should give menopausal women information about HRT as a treatment option, highlighting its risks, if they see that there are any, and its benefits. However, every patient is different and HRT might not be suitable for everyone. It is not the only treatment for menopausal symptoms, and GPs should also, where appropriate, talk women through all the non-hormonal and non-pharmaceutical treatments that are available.

My hon. Friend is right to say that there has been real confusion in the past about the safety of HRT. Concerns were raised in the early 2000s, as she mentioned, when a study said it was associated with an increased risk of breast cancer and heart disease. As a result, many women were advised by their doctors to come off HRT and the number of HRT users in the UK fell significantly. I cannot stress strongly enough that, as my hon. Friend has noted, the evidence base has since become clearer and the NICE guidance on the menopause is clear that HRT is a perfectly safe treatment in the majority of cases, and in most cases there is a far lower health risk in taking HRT than in drinking a couple of glasses of wine every day or in obesity, as my hon. Friend said.

The NICE guidance on the menopause also provides GPs with advice on how to recognise symptoms of the menopause. This guidance has helped prevent misdiagnosis, and my hon. Friend spoke very powerfully about how sometimes menopause can be mistaken for depression, which is incredibly worrying. Improving treatment of the symptoms of the menopause is also important.

We are also taking a range of other actions to improve support for women experiencing menopausal symptoms. This includes the work of the royal colleges, which of course play an important role in the education, training and professional development of healthcare professionals who treat women with menopausal symptoms. The Royal College of General Practitioners has produced a toolkit that includes learning resources for GPs on diagnosis and management of symptoms of the menopause. In addition, the Royal College of Nursing, in collaboration with the British Menopause Society, has produced a guide providing information for nurses who wish to ​become specialists in the menopause. That is very important, too. The Royal College is also aiming to develop a GP specialty that focuses on women’s health, which will be warmly welcomed.

Correct diagnosis and treatment of symptoms of the menopause are important, but we also have to focus on improving wider awareness of the menopause. An important part of this will be to have more open conversations around the menopause, so that we can start tackling the taboos that are attached to it. Taking this wider, bigger-picture approach is vital, given the huge impact that the menopause can have on all parts of a woman’s life.

In raising awareness and tackling taboos, we need to ensure that we reach out to all demographics, including boys and men. I cannot help thinking that if a similar hormonal transition affected men for an average of four years in the second half of their life, we would never hear the end of it—[Interruption.] Present company excepted, of course. As it is, the menopause has become something of a taboo, and we have to get over that. That is why it is so incredibly faith-restoring to see these incredibly liberated and forward-thinking gentlemen in the Chamber tonight, including my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), who has talked about the menopause cafe that he runs. He should be championed for that. I was also pleased to see that the debate that was held on world menopause day last October was called by a male MP. These men are champions, in my eyes, and they deserve to be celebrated.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch mentioned, education is absolutely key to promoting awareness and understanding of the menopause. The Government are making relationships education compulsory in primary schools and relationships and sex education compulsory in secondary schools. The underpinning focus in these subjects is to equip young people to develop positive attitudes to health, relationships and wellbeing. Schools will then have a really good opportunity to improve pupils’ understanding and awareness of the menopause.

Hon. Members will be aware that women represent 51% of the UK population and 44% of our workforce. They play a vital role in the nation’s health, but they do not always receive the most timely or appropriate healthcare. My hon. Friend mentioned the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), who is the Minister with responsibility for mental health, inequalities, and suicide prevention. She is doing sterling work on this issue, and she has set up a women’s health taskforce. This taskforce will work to ensure that women receive timely and appropriate care in relation to a whole range of issues, and as part of its upcoming early work, it will consider the menopause.

This work will be informed by a collaborative discussion that will be led by the brilliant chief medical officer and include the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, a number of academics who work in menopause research and GPs who specialise in the menopause. These discussions will feed into the taskforce’s wider objectives: to empower women to speak more confidently; to raise awareness and break taboos around women’s health problems; and to improve the access, quality and experience of care for women. I hope that that will help to address some of the important issues ​that my hon. Friend has raised today, and I am sure that my ministerial colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care will be absolutely delighted to work closely with her on the taskforce’s developing work around the menopause, because she has done such sterling work in this area so far.

We need to ensure that workplaces provide the necessary and appropriate support for women. A recent study found that 41% of women aged 50 to 60 said that the menopause had affected their job, but that 70% did not tell their employer about their symptoms. This demonstrates the work that needs to be done to move beyond shame and silence to an open conversation about the menopause, because half the population will go through it. Giving better support to those women in work is not only right but fundamentally good for the economy. Women over 50 are now one of the fastest growing groups of employees. They have invaluable skills and experience, which means that they are incredibly difficult to replace. We should be looking to support them to stay in work whenever we can.

I am particularly proud to be responding to this debate tonight not only because I am hurtling very fast towards the menopause myself but because, when I was Minister for Women and Equalities, I chaired the very first parliamentary roundtable on awareness and taboos around the menopause in the workplace. This was the first ever meeting in Parliament that brought together important stakeholders and interested parties to discuss this important issue. We heard some incredible evidence. I remember one lady telling us that she had had to leave her workplace because all she wanted was a desktop fan to help her deal with the hot flushes, but the company would not let her have one and so lost an employee with incredible experience and huge amounts of skill, which just makes no sense at all."

Read the transcript of the full debate here