A House of Commons committee is studying the biggest health issues affecting women in Canada amid heightened scrutiny over gender gaps in health care and major strains across the country.
The House of Commons standing committee on health held its first meeting on Monday focusing on a planned study on women’s health. The committee normally has just one female member but on Monday swapped in multiple women from the Liberal, Conservative and Bloc Quebecois caucuses for the hearing. The NDP has also said it will do so.
Cindy Moriarty, director general of health programs and strategic initiatives at Health Canada, highlighted sexual and reproductive health, cancer research and breast cancer screening in particular as key priorities she hopes the committee will probe closely.
“There’s not a health issue that doesn’t have an impact on women, doesn’t require that attention,” she told MPs in Ottawa.
While Canada has made progress, gaps still remain in the understanding of women’s health issues, Moriarty added.
“Today, much more attention is paid to women’s health and a greater general understanding of women’s health issues exists than was the case even a decade ago,” she said. “However, to close the gender gap in health, more research is required that focuses on health priorities that uniquely and disproportionately or differently affect women.”
This includes research with trans and non-binary people, who are affected by women’s health issues, as well as better data, Moriarty said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the forefront and exacerbated pre-existing challenges in Canada’s health-care system. In particular for women, this has resulted in delays in breast, ovarian or cervical cancer screenings, procedures and treatments.
The Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care, which is an independent panel of experts, is currently undertaking an expedited update of their 2018 breast cancer screening guideline.
Meanwhile, changes to cervical cancer screening for women are underway in Canada that could help detect high-risk pre-cancerous infections.
At least two provinces have already said they would replace the old Pap test and move to the human papillomavirus (HPV) test as the primary screening method for cervical cancer. Several others are also looking at making the switch.
Reproductive health is another key issue the committee should also focus on, witnesses said, amid a growing push in some provinces to increase birth control access. Manitoba’s new government is promising free prescription contraception, similar to what British Columbia already has in place.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in July approved the country’s first over-the-counter daily oral contraceptive, prompting experts to question when Canadians can receive the same access.
Budget 2021 allocated $45 million over three years to improve access to the full range of sexual and reproductive health support, information and services for Canadians facing the greatest barriers to access. Budget 2023 renewed the investment to the tune of $36 million over three years.
The committee has so far received 23 briefs from a variety of experts and advocacy groups for the purposes of the study.
The submissions range from calls for better mental health resources for women, to improved breast cancer screening and gynecological services, to protections for LGBTQ2 and Indigenous women in Canada.
— With files from Global News’ Sean Boynton and Naomi Barghiel.