Victoria Phillips, partner and head of employment rights (client relations) at social justice law firm Thompsons Solicitors, discusses how women have been treated following complications from surgical mesh.
Over the years, there has been growing awareness and press coverage surrounding the issues of surgical mesh, particularly following the publication of the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review on 8 July 2020, led by Baroness Cumberlege. The First Do No Harm report looked into three medical scandals: primodos, a hormone pregnancy test associated with birth defects that was withdrawn in the 1970s; sodium valproate, an anti-epileptic drug, which can harm children during pregnancy; and vaginal mesh implants, a cause of unbearable pain and life-long complications.
We represent more than 200 women in vaginal mesh surgery claims so, in terms of the review, our focus has always been on this medical intervention. But the commonalities that bind the three are far more staggering than their differences. The review had many overarching themes but the concerns of female patients being ignored by health professionals was a significant common denominator, which exposed an institutionalised inability for the healthcare system to listen to women.
At Thompsons Solicitors, we’ve witnessed how male surgeons patronise female patients and dismiss legitimate concerns in a way that we’re convinced would never happen if the patient was a man. There has been an overriding paternalistic approach to female issues and patients have had no choice but to trust their surgeon, despite their body telling them something quite different.
If mesh was to be inserted anywhere near male sexual organs, I believe there would have been rigorous and comprehensive pre-market testing before it was even hinted at as a potential treatment option. If there was even a slight risk to a man’s ability to function sexually , mesh probably would have been dropped far sooner, or more likely, never considered an option in the first place.
It begs the question that should a man have been put in the same position, would he have been given all of the necessary information? Would he have been listened to when he voiced concerns about the pain he was feeling after his mesh surgery? Would his medical team have looked into the issue thoroughly and found a suitable alternative? Looking at the findings of the review and speaking to our clients, the answer is a resounding yes. Instead, women were told it was “all in their head”, or part of the menopause, and often referred for counselling in lieu of any effort being made to discover the true cause of their agony.
Many who had mesh surgery didn’t experience issues until years later, but some reported pain and complications immediately after regaining consciousness from their surgeries with assurances it was completely normal and in time would wane. For thousands of women, it never did. They spoke to their GPs, numerous surgeons and other healthcare professionals but were often dismissed when they suggested their pain was from mesh. One client recalled her surgeon telling her parents she was inventing her pain because of school-related anxiety. That client has since been told the rectopexy surgery she had at just 15 years old, which has left her self-irrigating every night since, was unnecessary. She must continue to self-irrigate for the foreseeable future, unless she agrees to have a colostomy bag. She is just 22 years old.
The review team heard hundreds of accounts across the country on all three health scandals and Baroness Cumberlege summed it up by saying she “couldn’t believe that people had gone through so much agony and suffering and had been ignored” and that “much of this suffering was entirely avoidable.”
The life-changing disabilities our clients have suffered from mesh implants has been heart-breaking to see. There has been a systematic failure with a lack of warning from both the manufacturers and the surgeons and hospitals who carried out the operations, without adequate consent. When they tried to complain, our clients faced rejection and belittlement while being wracked with pain.
Baroness Cumberlege didn’t pull any punches in her review. The changes she called for are too late for those we represent, but they offer the possibility of real reform. This is not just about the NHS. Her recommendations must equally apply to the private healthcare sector, which is every bit, if not more, complicit.
An apology to the women and men who have suffered, as well as their families, is as welcome as it is overdue, but it won’t bring back the people our clients once were or the childhoods or relationships they have lost.
To ensure this is not a further slap in the face for our clients, and others affected, the promised changes must be swift, real and resourced from new money, not recycled funds taken from other parts of the health service.
What those who have suffered for so long deserve is decisive action that leads to real change. And that must start without delay.