Canada

2014/03/06

Dr Ophira Ginsburg

“Women often aren’t the primary decision maker for their own healthcare.” Ophira is a medical oncologist at the Women’s CollegeRead more →

2014/03/05

Dr Angela Enright

“Women are the glue that hold the family together. If the mother dies in childbirth, it is a catastrophe forRead more →

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Dr Ophira Ginsburg

“Women often aren’t the primary decision maker for their own healthcare.”

Ophira is a medical oncologist at the Women’s College Research Institute in Canada. Her work focuses on women’s health equality and global cancer control. As the winner of a Grand Challenges Canada award, she and her team are using mobile phone technology to improve breast cancer diagnosis and care in Bangladesh.

Is global surgery for women just about obstetrics?

No, it’s about women’s health – which is about much more than just reproductive health.

Of course access to safe surgery is critically important for complicated births – we lose thousands of women unnecessarily in so many countries for lack of obstetric care. But what a colossal shame for their child to watch them die of breast or cervical cancer ten years later because basic surgical care was unavailable.

What is the reality for a woman with cancer in a low-resource country?

It cuts down women in the prime of their lives. Most of the world’s deaths from cervical cancer are in these countries, and breast cancer strikes at a much lower age – in Canada on average at 61, in India and Bangladesh it’s about 42, 44.

These operations aren’t difficult to teach. But despite all the attention we pay cancer in high-income countries, there is silence on the topic of high-quality – or even basic – surgical intervention for women in low-resource settings.

Is there a gender imbalance?

Gender inequality really plays a role, especially in rural Bangladesh where I work. Women often aren’t the primary decision maker for their own healthcare. Most of the cases we see at our clinic are very advanced (and of course there’s a lack of palliative care) primarily because women aren’t coming when surgery would have made a difference.

They see that their aunty, their mother doesn’t come back – instead they need to see that effective surgery can save their life.

So do women with cancer get no surgical treatment at all?

Sometimes it’s worse than that. A third of the women we interviewed for a study published in the International Journal of Breast Cancer had already had ‘surgery.’ That is to say they’d had a suspicious lump partly cut out, highly unsafe surgery with no pathology, no follow up.

So here they are again a year later with a fungating [necrotic] tumour. It’s a profoundly morbid situation that absolutely could have been prevented with proper surgical management.

What is the wider impact of lack of access to safe surgical care?

Beyond the obvious of women dying unnecessarily? Effectively, orphan children. Children younger than ten may not immediately die from malnutrition, but they’re ostracized, impoverished, less likely to complete school – imagine what happens to them later in life?

Limited access to surgery, inadequate or unsafe surgery, directly contributes to the cycle of poverty.

 

 

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Dr Angela Enright

“Women are the glue that hold the family together. If the mother dies in childbirth, it is a catastrophe for her and for the children.”

Angela is Head of Anesthesia for Vancouver Island. She’s a past president of the World Federation of Societies of Anaesthesiologists and the Canadian Anaesthesiologists’ Society, and a trustee of Lifebox Foundation.

Why is access to safe surgery and anaesthesia an important issue for women’s health?

In low-income environments, emergency obstetric surgery such as Cesarean Section and ruptured ectopic pregnancy constitute a large part of the surgical volume. Women also endure other surgical conditions such as trauma, cancers and bowel obstructions that require surgical intervention.

Often they present late to the hospital and are in a high-risk state. The rate of complications such as severe blood loss is high.

But if a woman in a low-resource setting needs a surgery?

The challenges are huge. Poor transportation, long distance from a surgical facility, lack of money to pay for surgical care, distrust of the care available and late presentation all affect the ability of the patient to access timely and appropriate surgical care.

In addition, women may have cultural issues which may prevent them going to a hospital for surgery – such as requiring a husband’s permission, which may not be freely given or delayed if he works away from home.

Has global surgery kept pace with developments in medical knowledge and technologies?

There are improvements in some areas – for instance education of women, which makes them more aware of what they need and how to access it. Provision of local health care workers, such as in Malawi, has improved care and resulted in earlier referral to a surgical or obstetrical centre. Cesarean section is now most frequently performed under spinal anesthesia. That provides a measure of safety over poorly managed general anesthesia.

But you need early access, resources and skilled providers to be able to treat these patients successfully. This is still a problem, as well as practical issues, like a functioning blood bank for life-saving transfusion during a crisis.

Does surgery in these conditions become unsafe?

Yes!

What are the repercussions?

Women are the glue that hold the family together. If the mother dies in childbirth, it is a catastrophe for her and for the children and also for the husband, who now has to figure out how to care for his family whilst trying to work to support them.

Many women have ‘cottage’ jobs – something they can do from home which brings in some money, like weaving baskets sold to tourists. This type of income often pays for the children’s education.

Late management of surgical problems such as breast cancer results in increased morbidity and early mortality for the woman. Often other problems such as an enlarged thyroid may be left until it presents a major airway problem. Bleeding from untreated uterine fibroids can result in severe anemia and a mother bereft of energy and the ability to care for the family.

Do women play a role in delivering care too?

I would say that women provide the backbone of care in anaesthesia and nursing. Most surgical care is still provided by men.

Does this crisis get much recognition?

There is a belief that surgery is expensive and unaffordable but that is not the case. Routine surgical conditions should be treated early to return people quickly to the workforce.

Major agencies such as WHO have invested much time and effort dealing with public health issues and communicable infectious diseases. Obviously these need attention but much has been done to improve their status and it is time to turn some attention to surgery.