March is Endometriosis Awareness Month. Endometriosis is an invisible condition that affects an estimated one in ten women worldwide, and at least 700,000 people in Australia. But even these estimates are likely to be conservative due to chronic underdiagnosis and inadequate healthcare measures in many countries.
Endometriosis primarily affects women and girls. It is a condition in which tissue similar to the lining of the uterus grows in or on other organs. It typically affects surrounding pelvic organs such as the ovaries and bladder.
During the menstrual cycle, these tissues can grow, thicken and breakdown but can’t be expelled. This leads to irritation which can cause severe pain, scarring or adhesion of organs, and infertility.
In 2018, after years of grassroots campaigning by women living with endometriosis, Health Minister Greg Hunt was forced to create a national action plan for endometriosis and allocate funding towards research, education and management.
He was also made to apologise on behalf of the government for the lack of recognition of the condition and its impact.
However, this proved to be an empty apology after a mere $4.7 million in funding was allocated under the plan in 2018. This equated to less than $7 per person living with endometriosis!
Under further pressure, last year the government announced it would be providing additional funding under the national action plan. However, in 2019 researchers were reporting that they hadn’t been able to access the $2.5 million promised almost a year earlier!
Many advocacy and education groups also still rely on fundraising and other non-government funding to continue their work.
The dire need for more research funding into endometriosis isn’t isolated to Australia. Despite being first documented and diagnosed more than 150 years ago, very little is still known about the condition.
There’s currently no cure and diagnosis can only be made through a laparoscopy – a minor pelvic surgery.
Sexist attitudes continue to permeate throughout the health industry. Studies have shown medical professionals tend to take women’s pain less seriously than men’s. Women are often perceived as being hysterical and attention seeking when trying to access help.
These biases have serious consequences for the treatment and well-being of women. We’re more frequently denied opioid pain medication and experience longer waiting times in emergency departments.
Misdiagnoses are also more common in women and physical health concerns are often attributed to mental health issues such as anxiety.
Early treatment of endometriosis is vital to the long-term management of symptoms and can prevent complications such as chronic pain and infertility. However, today women experience a 7-12-year delay in diagnosis on average.
Even after a diagnosis is made, treatment options are limited. Certain options are often denied on the basis that all women want children, others have long waiting lists or can be expensive, putting them out of reach for working class people.
Australian women with endometriosis spend an average of $1200 in out-of-pocket medical costs to treat or manage their illness every year. Women’s bodily autonomy and right to choose, if, when and how they’ll have children is seriously undermined by these barriers to quality reproductive healthcare.
While the government has pledged a measly amount towards endometriosis research and clinical management, it continues to make massive cuts to a healthcare system that is already in a funding crisis.
This is the reality of a system that unapologetically prioritises profit over the right of women, and all working-class people, to live healthy and fulfilling lives.
We need a fully funded, high quality healthcare system that is accessible to everyone, but capitalism will continue pushing back any attempt made to improve the quality and accessibility of healthcare.
The only way to eliminate the sexism ingrained in our healthcare system is to remove the profit motive. A new system is needed where ordinary people have control over their own health services to benefit everyone regardless of gender or socioeconomic status.
By Sheri Bryson