Jackie Doyle-Price: “We must give women the tools to look after themselves and not suffer in silence”
Jackie Doyle-Price fears the health service is failing women, who are too often forced to ‘suffer in silence’. The Minister for Health Inequalities tells Sebastian Whale why it’s vital women are given the tools to talk about their health
The “political bug” bit Jackie Doyle-Price at the age of 14 when her parents were trying to buy their council house in the 1980s. Growing up in an apolitical family from Sheffield (her father was a bricklayer, her mother worked at ‘Woolies’), she was deemed a “bit odd” for taking an interest in current affairs as a teenager.
But her parents’ dream of owning their own home was being resisted by the local council, which was run at the time by one David Blunkett. “That just pricked my interest,” Doyle-Price says. “I got involved in politics then to join the Conservative party, to campaign for people to buy their council houses. Here I am 30 years later.”
Where she finds herself is in her ninth-floor ministerial office at the Department of Health, complete with a balcony and prime views of Westminster to the south, but a bit short of ventilation as the mercury nears 30 degrees.
Doyle-Price first stood for parliament in 2005 after concluding: “I could do a better job”. Though unsuccessful in that bid for Sheffield Hillsborough (a constituency partially subsumed into one represented by Blunkett five years later), she was elected by 92 votes to become MP for Thurrock in 2010. Her cumulative majority over three elections is still below 1,000.
“It’s gone from being the fourth most marginal seat to the sixth, to the eighth. So, the direction of travel is positive,” she says, dryly, with her Sheffield accent still in good spirits.
“To be honest, when your majority is that narrow it’s quite liberating because there’s no point playing to the gallery. You just have to do what’s right and the people will decide. In that sense, I just get on and do the right thing.
“Obviously, in 2015 it was the tightest three-way fight and it was Ukip’s best prospect. If there’s one thing that I’m proud of in my political career, it’s that I kept Ukip out of parliament. Job done.”
After the 2017 election, she was appointed to the frontbench as minister with specific responsibility for mental health, inequalities and children’s health. She also finds herself overseeing policies relating to women, and it is here where Doyle-Price begins to flex her ministerial muscles, showing her desire for reform.
She has concerns about the “asymmetrical” relationship between doctors and patients. “Quite often, the profession is still overwhelmingly male. A lot of the conditions that we as women present with are quite uncomfortable to talk about and a bit embarrassing,” she says.
“We also see behaviours in the NHS where once the latest treatment has been approved everyone gets it. The outcome of that doesn’t play out until much later.”
Doyle-Price points to the example of vaginal mesh, which was prescribed as a treatment for mild incontinence, as opposed to acute problems as originally intended. This led to “really poor outcomes for some women who are suffering the most devastating life-changing consequences of it”, she says.
“That’s kind of an example of how there isn’t a proper conversation between women and health professionals about the conditions that affect them.
“We need to get a much more informed consent of anyone to any procedure or medication that they’re taking. We often get sent away with prescriptions, but we need to realise that none of these things we’re taking are Smarties. Every treatment we have has a consequence and we as patients need to be much better at properly assessing the risks to ourselves and having those informed conversations with practitioners,” she says.
“There is another point about women as well,” she continues. “There is not a single female MP who hasn’t told me at some point they felt patronised and diminished whilst trying to access health treatments.
“Now, we are all pushy, articulate, good-at-looking-after-ourselves kinds of women. If we’ve had that experience, then clearly there’s a wider issue here. We need to do something about that. That’s about changing the behaviour of practitioners, but also giving women the tools to help them do the job and look after themselves.”
Doyle-Price says the problems stem from an “unequal conversation”, as opposed to a lack of empathy. To mitigate against it, she wants to “bang the drum for NHS Choices” so patients become more aware of their rights and stop using “Dr Google”.
The “plus side” is that more women GPs are entering the industry, she adds. But there is still “a lot of ignorance” about common conditions that affect women because society does not like to talk about them, Doyle-Price argues, citing incontinence and menopause, endometriosis and fibroids as examples.
“So, there’s a public education piece there. We talk about PSHE and all the rest of it. Again, we do all this education in mixed classes, so it’s not the most comfortable to do, talk about things like periods in a mixed class,” she says.
“We’ve really got to think about giving all women the tools to be able to look after themselves and think, ‘hang on, there’s a problem here’, and not just suffer in silence because it’s all a bit embarrassing and messy.”
Is there a need for a bespoke health policy for women? “Well, it’s really interesting. When you have this conversation, people say, ‘oh, when we going to have a men’s health minister?’ I always say, ‘well, there’s four here’,” she jokes, referring to her colleagues in the Department of Health.
“We’ve gone from having a very male-dominated profession to one that’s changing. But the legacies of that are still there. So, we need to be much more sensitive to the particular needs of women, because the reality is our bodies are different. We have issues that cause more and more morbidities than men would have. That’s just a fact of life.”
She adds: “We do need a health strategy to manage that. Of course, we do. It would be discriminatory to pretend otherwise.”
One injustice for women that could be scrapped once we leave the European Union is the tampon tax. Does Doyle-Price, who voted Remain, support abolishing the levy? “I think the House of Commons has made its view quite clear it wants it scrapped. So, yes.” Would she want to see it done straight after leaving the EU? “That would be a matter for the Chancellor. I think the message has been received loud and clear.”
As she seeks to break taboos relating to women’s health, Doyle-Price is pleased with the progress made so far on people’s willingness to speak about their mental wellbeing. Her interest now is turning to the “more severe end”, with particular focus on the offender population. “That’s really where I’m at,” she says.
Is this in relation to preventing crime, or for offenders’ care in prison?
“It’s a bit of both. Ultimately, if you’re going to deprive people of their liberty, that’s not going to be good for their mental health. So, there clearly needs to be access to therapies in prisons to help offenders manage their mental health,” she says.
“What is striking, if you look at the offender population, a lot of them have been in care, a lot of them have learning disabilities. The question is, is that the right place for them? I don’t think it is.
“If you look at the women who make up the offender population, a lot of them are self-harmers, a lot of them come from abusive relationships. So, when you actually look at the criteria about what makes up an offender, ideally you want to be getting to them before they offend.
“The really unfortunate thing is they tend to end up being excluded from society, so the only time we actually get the chance to have a look at them is when they become a nuisance to society by breaking the law.
“That’s really the challenge. If we want to improve the health of our prisoner population and reduce offending, we need to find ways of getting to people much earlier.”
Doyle-Price looks taken aback as I suggest hers is not a traditional Conservative outlook. “Ultimately, if you want the best for society, prevention is better than cure, every time,” she says.
“With the right intervention, you can change the course of someone’s life. I’d rather it happened before they broke the law than after.”
Many are of the same view on prevention, which is why they see confronting child mental health issues as central to tackling the epidemic. What is behind the rise in distress for youngsters?
“There is no clear answer as to why. I could speculate. I don’t think children are doing as much physical exercise as they used to do, so that’s not good for their mental health. I think we are all overstimulated by aggressive video games and using smartphones too much. The diet is worse – what you are is what you eat,” Doyle-Price says.
She insists that the government is “rising to the challenge”, with measures to tackle mental health problems in schools outlined in a green paper earlier this year. These include plans to trial a new four-week NHS waiting time target for mental health services in some areas. “It is a complete step-change in how we support children’s mental health issues,” she adds.
Has social media contributed to the rise in distress? Doyle-Price says companies could do “a lot more to make them better environments” and says it is “rubbish” to suggest they could not enforce age limits.
“Equally, parents have a role in making sure that their kids aren’t spending hours and hours and hours on it, because it’s just not healthy at all,” she adds.
But she concedes: “The first thing I do in the morning and the last thing I do at night is look at my phone – that ain’t good for you. Especially when someone like me who gets lots of abuse, why am I looking at this rubbish? I’m a human being, it’s going to wound me, so why am I looking at it?”
Is being a politician good for your mental health? “No!” Doyle-Price laughs.
“I always say that being a Member of Parliament is the best job in the world and the worst at the same time. But like anything else, you have to find your own tools for being resilient, you need to look after yourselves.
“There’s a lot of camaraderie over there, which is nice.”
She concludes: “Collectively as a society, it was quite acceptable to drink and drive and now it’s not, because society decided that. The law changed, but society would not tolerate that behaviour.
“That’s really where we need to get to with abuse via social media or anywhere else. Let’s bring back good manners.”