I am sharing my time with the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan.
I am delighted to discuss this important issue. Improving the outcomes and experiences of women in our healthcare system has been an absolute priority for the Government and will remain so throughout its term. This month we launched of the women's health action plan, the first of its kind in Ireland and showing a new future for women and girls. I acknowledge the support and input to this work of Members of the Dáil and Seanad of all parties and in both government and opposition and the Independent ranks. I acknowledge the input of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and the input and work of the Oireachtas women's caucus. Many of the actions in the plan are ones for which Members of both Houses have advocated, sometimes over many years.
I acknowledge the valuable input from civil society, including the many groups convened by the National Women's Council, on the priority policies and the best way to roll them out. I acknowledge the amazing work of the women's health task force, which has been working on this matter for a considerable period and has been central to policy development and the creation of our first-ever women's health action plan. The action plan involves invaluable work that will have a substantial impact on healthcare services for women and girls of all ages in our country for many decades.
We have worked with and listened very carefully to women all over Ireland over the past two years. They have spoken of their experiences of our healthcare system and told us the issues they feel are most in need of attention. Their requests were that we should keep listening to them; not make promises but instead take action; respect them as "experts by experience"; empower them with trusted sources of information; and, most important, give them access to the women's health services they need - services that are accessible, expert and empathetic.
The women's health action plan places women at the heart, and in control, of their own healthcare. It does this in several ways. I will share with the House some of the most exciting developments in the plan and what we are rolling out this year. Last year, the first publicly-funded, dedicated specialist menopause clinic was established. This year, we will open a further three. By the end of last year, we had fully funded and opened several see-and-treat gynaecology clinics. This year, we will open a further 12, totalling 20 around the country. There will be a national network of these clinics. They are incredibly effective and can provide necessary care to women in just a few hours in one visit, instead of multiple visits over months or, as in some cases, several years. It is a vital step in improving healthcare outcomes and access for women and in reducing gynaecology waiting lists.
I opened the see-and-treat clinic in the Rotunda recently. In its first 12 weeks of operation, it reduced the long-waiter list by 90%, which is amazing. In the past few weeks, I visited the Galway clinic, where staff explained to me that before its establishment, a woman might have required four separate visits. The first involved a referral from a GP to a gynaecologist, who might have had to make a referral elsewhere for diagnostics. After diagnostics, the woman had to go back to the gynaecologist and, finally, the latter might have made a referral for a procedure. This could have taken six months or sometimes two years. This is now all happening in one visit over just two or three hours, so the outcomes are very positive.
Critically, we will see this August the introduction of the first phase of free contraception for women. As colleagues will be aware, we are beginning with women aged between 17 and 25.
My intention, and hope, is that we will roll that out to all age groups and phase it in during the years to come. We are setting up two new postnatal hubs to innovate in how we provide wraparound care to mums in those critical first weeks with their babies.
It is also important that we address women's unique mental health experiences and service requirements. This plan brings a new spotlight to women’s mental health and well-being. We are increasing supports around self-harm, enhancing eating disorder supports and setting up several new teams around the country. We are also examining the supports needed by carers and, as we know, this is a group that is mostly, though not exclusively, female. Additionally, we are developing an inpatient mother and baby unit. We are also, and we were just discussing this initiative this morning, gender-proofing the actions in the Sharing the Vision strategy, which is the national mental health strategy. It is an excellent strategy, but it was not gender-proofed at the start and we are doing that now. We are also establishing six publicly-funded regional fertility hubs to support women and families in their fertility journeys. Additionally, fertility support will be increased through the stronger regulation of the assisted human reproduction sector through new legislation. I look forward to the Health (Assisted Human Reproduction) Bill 2022 being before the House shortly. Not only will that legislation bring in much-needed regulation, but it will also pave the way for publicly-funded IVF treatment. Therefore, we are laying the foundations for these things to come to fruition in the coming years.
Women have expressed the need for increased supports when making the choice to breastfeed. In response, we have more than doubled the number of lactation consultants trained to provide specialist, hands-on support to help women to succeed on this journey. I had the great honour and privilege of meeting some of the lactation consultants and some of the mums in one of the clinics recently. As we are all aware, in an international context, Ireland has a very low rate of breastfeeding and we must focus on this area. All the feedback we are receiving from these clinics is positive regarding this national network of lactation consultants and the support available for mums in hospitals and when they go home.
We must, of course, do much more to understand women’s experiences of healthcare, the services provided and the outcomes. That is why we are engaging in several new initiatives, including, for example, our first maternity bereavement survey, which we are doing this year. This will help us to understand how best to support mums and families in what of course is the hardest time imaginable for any parent. It is also why we have put such a strong focus on increasing research and innovation in women’s healthcare in the women’s health action plan.
As I said previously, many women engaged with the women’s health task force and contributed directly to the action plan. They told us what they wanted to see from our healthcare system, and now it is up to us to respond accordingly. The women’s health action plan is a first step in this process. It is about our sisters, our mums, our daughters, our friends and about every woman and girl in this country, and about providing them with modern healthcare and the kind of health services required. The ambition and energy underpinning this plan is a testament to the emphatic message received from women from all around Ireland and from all walks of life who contributed fundamentally to its development. It matches the dedication and fervour of incredible healthcare professionals whose work we want, and need, to support to make the difference that women are asking for.
Budget 2022 gave us an investment of €31 million for women’s health to fund the plan. Additionally, the full-year cost of the measures we are introducing this year total a little under €50 million. Therefore, a substantial amount of money is being invested in this area. We hope this is just the beginning. I will of course be seeking more new development funding in the years to come to continue to expand and grow these services. We are not looking for incremental change and we are not seeking to make things a little better year after year. Women’s healthcare has never had the focus or investment it should have had and we have not had the level, range and coverage of services in this country that should have been available to women for a long time. What is needed is a revolution in women’s health care, and this women's health action plan for this year is an important step on that path.
This year, we are also taking a leading role internationally by developing a targeted, Government-led health agenda specific to women and their health. I am informed by the Department that having this type of specific women's health plan, designed according to the entire lifecycle from cradle to grave, will make us one of the only countries in the world to have taken this approach. It is something we should all be proud of. Equally, as I said, I believe this health plan is not owned by the Government but by the entire Oireachtas, civil society and the many women who contributed to it.
The publication of the women’s health action plan marked a new, important era for Ireland as we tackle some of the remaining taboos linked to aspects of women’s health. With this plan, this Government has committed to listening to, investing in and delivering for women when it comes to healthcare. We will keep listening in order that we can build a responsive health system that improves not only women’s health outcomes, but also their experiences of healthcare.
As I finish, I again acknowledge the time and the participation of women right around Ireland who contributed to the plan. Their words and experience have allowed us to understand what needs to happen, and the women’s health task force, by working with women all over Ireland, has created an unshakeable momentum behind this important and much-needed agenda.