A fifth of women “too embarrassed” to seek medical help

Emily Whitton
By Emily Whitton,
updated on Jul 6, 2023

Woman sat on bed leaning against wall holding a mug and notebook.

New research from Vitality reveals that 21% of women are too embarrassed to seek help for female health concerns

In a worrying report from Vitality, it has been revealed that many women are avoiding crucial health tests that could lead to important diagnoses. 21% of women surveyed said they didn’t attend their last cervical smear, with 13% of those saying they feared getting undressed in front of a medical professional.

The research, conducted by Opinium, surveyed 1,000 British women over the age of 18. Of those surveyed, almost two-thirds (63%) said they were happy to chat with their friends about a bad date, but only 29% would feel comfortable speaking to friends about being diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease (STD). Why? Well, it seems that many of these subjects, whether it’s about bowel movements, vaginal dryness or low libido, are off the cards for fear of being judged.

Something that’s not off the table, though, is the topic of menopause. A recent surge in public conversations around menopause has led many women to feel more comfortable opening up about their journey, with 78% willing to talk about it. But, whilst most women and those assigned female at birth (AFAB) have them, periods are still seen as taboo. Almost a quarter (23%) of participants were unwilling to talk about menstruation.

So, whether it’s vaginal discharge, thrush or incontinence, how can we tackle the taboo around female health concerns and why is it so important?

Vitality’s research highlights that the avoidance of these topics goes beyond the fear of being judged (20%) or “bringing down the mood of the group” (12%). Experiencing health issues can leave some people feeling isolated. 22% of those surveyed said it has impacted their relationships, with a further 13% saying it has hindered their ability to do their job.

When it comes to seeking help, 19% of women say they prefer to deal with issues themselves, rather than seeking medical advice and 14% opt to search for their symptoms online. This not only prevents the issue from being treated quickly and effectively but avoiding crucial health screenings could mean you’re missing out on early detection of infections and diseases. Speaking about her breast cancer diagnosis, Sarah Beeny highlights the importance of getting checked early.

“The big message is, if you have any kind of suspicion, go to the doctor. Don’t delay, because if you do get a diagnosis early, cancer is no longer terminal.”

Tackling the taboo

85% of those surveyed agree that more needs to be done to stop women’s health issues being perceived as ‘taboo’. 78% also feel there should be more public awareness campaigns on women’s health.

Dr Kiran Johan, Medical Advisor at Vitality says, “Although significant profess has been made in the area of women’s health and our attitudes towards it, taboos do still exist.

“Talking about a health concern has the potential to save lives, whether that’s encouraging someone to attend a screening appointment or finding support in others going through the same experience.”

What can I do if I feel uncomfortable about visiting the doctor?

Remember, symptoms might not point to anything serious, but it’s always worth getting them checked by a medical professional. There is nothing to feel embarrassed about — your doctor has probably seen it all before! But, if you are feeling uncomfortable, here are a few tips that can help:

  • Write down your symptoms if you don’t want to say them out loud.
  • Tell your doctor or nurse that you feel uncomfortable talking about it — they’ll be able to reassure you and offer you support.
  • Be honest and try not to skirt around uncomfortable truths — remember, the more information you can provide, the better.
  • If there’s something you don’t understand, ask them to repeat themselves or explain it again. This will help you digest all the information you’ve been given.
  • Remember that it’s their job to treat you, and they should never pass judgement.

For more information on women’s health, visit Vitality.

Find out more about the results of the latest ‘Women’s Health - Let’s talk about it’ survey, including what concerns are set to be prioritised for inclusion.

VitalityHealth is one of the UK’s leading private medical insurers. Through applications of the shared value model to health insurance, VitalityHealth incentivises members to get healthy, motivating better lifestyle choices and rewarding them for doing so.

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