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Alberta docs urge women to seek medical treatment they put off during the pandemic


Disparities in women's health have worsened during the pandemic, says a group of Alberta experts who are stressing the importance of timely treatment.

In May, as the province's COVID-19 cases peaked for a third time, the newly formed Alberta Women's Health Foundation (AWHF) surveyed 1,657 residents about their physical and mental wellbeing. Nearly three quarters of participants -- about 72 per cent -- identified as women.

The findings, released Tuesday, suggest women have sought professional treatment less frequently, delaying diagnoses and treatments.

Dr. Jane Schulz, chair at the University of Alberta Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, says sometimes concern about contracting COVID-19 discouraged patients from going to a hospital or clinic. In one case, she convinced a woman with lower abdominal pain to come in for an exam; it turned out the patient's appendix had burst and she underwent surgery that night.

The AWHF references research published in the Journal of Medical Screening, which found women were between 10 and 13 per cent more likely to skip, postpone or cancel an appointment than men.

"A lot of routine screening was completely shut down," Schulz noted.

"Women had the additional burden of child care issues and children being home for homeschooling and having to look after elderly parents. So sadly, a lot of women have neglected self care and we are now starting to see cancers present in a more advanced stage, which is really sad."

The same researchers estimated during a three-month interruption of breast cancer screenings in Canada, an extra 310 diagnoses of advanced stage breast cancer were made.

"Please seek out care," Schulz urged. "We are here to provide care, we are open to provide care as needed."

Mental health among women also worsened.

Sixty-three per cent of female survey respondents told AWHF pandemic stress was negatively affecting their physical health. Eleven per cent of women reported considering self harm. Eight per cent were diagnosed with a mental health disorder during the pandemic. Mothers suffer the heaviest emotional burden of social isolation.

Some survey participants said they wanted to get help, but faced months-long waitlists or could no longer afford it because their household income had been affected.

“Many of my patients without even having a pre-existing history of depression, anxiety are now struggling since the pandemic,” Dr. Stephanie Liu, a family physician, said.

“Loneliness is at an all time high.”

Forty per cent reported thinking about working fewer hours, 39 per cent considered changing careers, and more than a quarter are considering quitting.

Not only do the numbers point to inequities in the way women receive medical care, they signal a huge economic loss, AWHF CEO Sharlene Rutherford said. Women represent 46 per cent of Alberta's workforce.

"Solutions in women's health will set the stage for a stronger economy," Rutherford said.

She applauded Alberta's signing onto a federal child-care funding agreement but urged policy makers and leaders to address all of the barriers and service gaps, and the public to learn more about the disparities facing them.

The AWHF is an initiative of the Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation and launched in early 2021.

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Touria Izri Top Stories

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