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Women feel doctors 'normalise' loss of pregnancy, and first-time mothers 'not listened to', report finds

Over 270 women aged 18 to 80 participated in discussions for a report commissioned by a Department of Health taskforce.

Image: Shutterstock/AnemStyle

A NEW REPORT commissioned by a Department of Health taskforce has highlighted some of the negative experiences of women in the healthcare system, with some sharing feelings of being ignored or having their grief and trauma dismissed after the loss of a child.

The report follows a ‘radical listening exercise’ commissioned by the Women’s Health Taskforce, which was established by the department in 2019. Over 270 women aged 18 to 80 participated in discussions led by independent researchers.

Some of the participants who had gone through pregnancy said the information provided to them through healthcare felt “detached, traditional” and did not prepare them for the unexpected.

“Women feel that loss and grief in pregnancy is normalised/accepted by medical professionals and society and therefore their emotional needs are not being met or supported with adequate services – counselling, grief support, coping skills,” the report found.

It points out that women’s experiences with healthcare professionals and with the system during these times are “extremely formative” and shape their perceptions of the healthcare system.

Some women said they felt well-cared and looked after and that staff had been empathetic and directed them to support services. However many reported a lack of understanding which left them feeling “very hurt, unsupported and their loss invalidated”.

First time mothers also reported feeling “judged and not listened to” and that there was an expectation they would cope. Some mothers who participated in the exercise said they felt their needs and preferences were given less importance than the welfare of the baby.

The Covid-19 pandemic added an additional challenge and barrier to support for those accessing maternity services, the report found.

Women reported feeling more isolated because they were cut off from the support and information sources of friends and family.

“Despite a heightened awareness of mental wellbeing during this time women did not feel they received any additional support,” the report notes.

Many participants who had given birth during the pandemic said they were already uncertain of themselves in their pregnancies and had found hospital restrictions preventing their partners from accompanying them “very emotionally challenging, isolating and frightening”.

“The restrictions were perceived as a further signal that they had to go it alone in terms of their pregnancy journey and deal with issues and struggles as they arrive.”

Speaking to The Journal about the findings in the report, Orla O’Connor, Director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland said the main point highlighted by the research is that there needs to be a shift that puts women at the centre of their healthcare.

“In so many instances they are not at the centre,” she said. “Look at the maternity restrictions – that was the needs of the hospital getting priority. In pregnancy it can be that what women want in relation to the type of labour or how they want to be treated is not at the centre and often decisions are being made for us. There’s a sense of dis-empowerment in relation to the health service.”

O’Connor said the research is an important piece of work, but women now need to “see evidence that they’re being heard”.

“Women are sharing their experiences a lot and they still feel as though they’re not listened to,” she said.

In terms of general healthcare, women who participated reported feeling rushed or “unheard” in appointments, that there was a lack of communication while they waited for services and that long waiting lists caused “fear and anxiety.”

Women also spoke about the impact of feeling that they carried the greater burden of responsibility of caring.

O’Connor said one of the most vital improvements in the healthcare system for women is the reduction of waiting times for services.

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“A big part of this about waiting lists. That takes an enormous toll on women as they are not only negotiating for themselves but also for children and for older parents. Women are still the primary carers, negotiating for services for the whole family and it is hugely stressful.”

Some of the factors identified in the report that shaped the positive experiences participants had with the healthcare system include empathy and aftercare for mothers, an open and trusted relationship with GPs, effective communication in hospitals and proactive screening services.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, who met with all participants at an online launch event today, said the report and the conversations it represents are “a vital part of how we create a new approach to women’s health” in Ireland.

“The report captures some very honest and candid feedback which shows us where we can build on good practices, but which can also help us critically assess where we can deliver more and better for women,” he said.

The minister said he will announce further measures to improve the delivery of women’s healthcare, informed and underpinned by the voices and perspectives in this report.

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