Special Report: Dispelling myths to boost the wellbeing of women
As part of the observance of International Women's Day, Sheffield GP Dr Marion Sloan speaks about the misguided beliefs that are preventing females in the city from leading the healthiest lifestyles.
“I’ve always had an interest in women’s and sexual health,” says Marion Sloan, explaining one of the key philosophies behind her 38 years as a Sheffield GP.
“It underpins the community. If relationships and women’s health are strong, then it’s just good for the city.”
But the doctor, a partner at the Sloan Medical Practice in Heeley, believes dispelling a number of persistent myths would vastly improve females’ wellbeing.
“Nobody gets proper health education, full stop. Lots of women know what they know from reading magazines and talking to friends.
“It’s really difficult to get some middle of the road, solid advice.
“Another problem is that GPs are a bit bowed down at the moment. They’re maybe not as chatty as they’ve been in the past.”
Dr Sloan offers an example, by saying many gay women wrongly believe they do not need smear tests to check for signs of cervical cancer.
“Anybody who’s ever had heterosexual sex is at risk of HPV - the cancer-causing virus.
“A lot of gay women somewhere along the line have had a heterosexual relationship.”
She cites worrying figures that show a quarter of Sheffield women do not go for smear tests.
“The most important person to reach is someone who has never had a test. I think they’re just scared, and think it’ll hurt, or be embarrassing or invasive.
“Younger women are important to reach, too. Many get to 25 and just think ‘No, I’m not going for that’. If they don’t come for the first one, chances are they won’t come for the second or third.
“The virus slowly incubates and 15 years down the line they’ve got full-blown cancer, it’s spread and by then it’s far too late.”
Equally misguided is the view that HIV ‘isn’t a problem anymore’, she says.
Older, heterosexual women are increasingly being diagnosed as they seek new partners online, Dr Sloan reveals, adding: “Because contraception’s not an issue people don’t use condoms.”
She admits that doctors can be at fault by failing to consider HIV as a diagnosis.
“You might have been to a GP up to seven times before someone thinks ‘Let’s do a test’.”
Women do not need to see doctors for chlamydia testing - checks are freely available at clinics - while family doctors have stopped offering pregnancy tests, unless there are concerns for a patient’s health, Dr Sloan continues.
“Laboratories decided they were spending large amounts on pregnancy tests so GPs are not offering it any more. If you go to the GP and you’ve got pain, that’s a different story.”
Cystitis, too, can also be readily dealt with by pharmacists rather than doctors.
“It’s very common, you can buy things to flush the bladder out.”
A further myth is that women should only begin taking folic acid - which makes a baby’s neural tube close in the womb, preventing spina bifida - when they become pregnant.
“As soon as you stop using contraception, start using folic acid. It’s only water-soluble - a healthy, friendly vitamin.
“The neural tube closes on day 25. Folic acid is instrumental in making it close in the normal way.”
Meanwhile obesity remains a scourge of female health, with 60 per cent of Sheffield women classed as weighing too much, Dr Sloan says.
Cancers of the colon, breast, ovary and oesophagus, as well as heart disease and diabetes, are all linked to obesity.
“It will catch up with them eventually. Hormones are stored in body fat, and the more fat someone has got, the more hormones are stored there.
“The hormones cause irritation and set off malignancies.
“The incidence of cancer would improve if people were within a normal weight range.
“Obesity does other things, too - it puts blood pressure and cholesterol levels up.”
Exercising for 40 minutes every day - or even 20 minutes, three times a week - is considered beneficial.
Walking, cycling and swimming are recommended.
“Heart disease affects women just as much as men, especially after the menopause. It’s a killer.
“And it’s a lifestyle thing that’s so intertwined with risk factors.”
And the message is ‘clear’ on smoking, the doctor says.
“Cigarettes are bad news.”
Women should also begin thinking about preventing osteoporosis well before they reach middle age.
“To get the maximum bone density, it starts in the teenage years. Eat plenty of calcium and vitamin D and get out in the sunshine.”
Hormone replacement therapy - prescribed to menopausal women to relieve symptoms - delays the erosion of bone density, she accepts.
“But as soon as you come off it, it drops to where it was. And you’ve got to come off it at some point.”
However, HRT is ‘not dangerous’ to take, Dr Sloan maintains, and the advantages outweigh the small risks of cancer and other illnesses.
“If you fall and break your wrist that’s bad news, especially with older ladies. If you break your hip, that’s it - loss of independence.
“And it’s very difficult to come back from that.”
Sobering tale ‘did a lot of good’
Dr Marion Sloan says people are ‘fearful’ about symptoms they believe could point to something sinister.
“They Google it and scare themselves silly.”
Conversely, sobering tales such as the death of reality TV personality Jade Goody, who lost her life aged 27 to cervical cancer in 2009, can have a positive effect.
“Lots of people crawled out of the woodwork. It did a lot of good to the smear programme.”
However, Sheffield still struggles with stark inequality, the GP reflects.
“Whatever the measures, the outcomes are worst in deprived areas. It’s very difficult.
“If you compare someone’s health in Heeley, where I work, with someone else in Dore, you’d see a clear difference.
“Public health do a good job - but the people who listen to their messages are often the worried well.”