A PELVIC mesh scandal that has left Australian women with serious, permanent and disabling injuries is a wake-up call for the medical profession that some doctors might have a problem with women, said Senator Rachel Siewert as a Senate committee prepares to release a report on the scandal.
“The medical profession need to look at themselves about how something like this could have happened. If it wasn’t for the women’s tenacity this still wouldn’t have come to light,” said Senator Rachel Siewert after evidence women were patronised, dismissed, told their problems were "all in their heads”, isolated and silenced by doctors for years after pelvic mesh implants.
A Senate inquiry heard evidence some doctors did not tell women they were being implanted with the devices, or that they had a financial relationship with the manufacturer. At least one woman told the inquiry her doctor suggested anal sex after she was unable to have vaginal sex for the rest of her life following failed mesh surgery.
Senator Siewert, who chaired the inquiry, said she hoped obstetricians and gynaecologists had the capacity to acknowledge and address the underlying gender issues repeatedly raised by women during the inquiry but “maybe they need to get in some expertise about how you do a review, how do you change your practices”.
“It was really clear from the women that they weren’t listened to for a long time,” she said.
Australian Pelvic Mesh Support Group founder Caz Chisholm, who campaigned for the Senate inquiry, said it featured men representing manufacturers defending the devices and male surgeons also defending the devices.
It was really clear from the women that they weren’t listened to for a long time.Senator Rachel Siewert
“It was men making decisions about women’s bodies,” Ms Chisholm said.
”To the women who have been injured by these devices it feels like abuse. It feels like a violation. Mesh injury is traumatic and takes the core of a woman’s femininity away from her, and the industry is dominated by males.”
Australian Medical Association president and Western Australian obstetrician Dr Michael Gannon said he had “heard stories of yesteryear and there may have been a cultural problem in the past” by largely male obstetricians and gynaecologists towards women, but rejected it as a contemporary problem.
“If I reflect on my contemporaries I have to say the male obstetricians/gynaecologists were really, without exception, gentlemen who cared about the women they looked after,” Dr Gannon said.
Asked to comment on whether evidence to the inquiry of women being patronised, dismissed and told their mesh complications were “all in their heads” showed respect by doctors for women, Dr Gannon said he did not dispute their evidence.
“There’s evidence to suggest there was a problem,” he said.
“I have no doubt at all that there are women, a significant number of women, that this is not just their perception, it’s the reality.
“I’ve met individual women who have been caught up in this mess. This is not a great story for medical practice and for gynaecological practice.”
Senator Siewert said it was distressing knowing some women were in so much pain even years after pelvic mesh surgery that they could not sit for very long during the Senate hearings.
She declined to comment on whether the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists had responded adequately to concerns raised about some pelvic mesh devices from at least a decade before legal action by women and the first warnings by the American Food and Drug Administration.
She was surprised that even in 2017 there was no formal credentialing process for surgeons using the devices, despite warnings from regulators nearly a decade earlier about the need for skilled, experienced surgeons when performing mesh surgery.
Despite days of public hearings across Australia and hundreds of submissions, there was more to be known about how pelvic mesh devices were approved for the Australian market and remained on the market despite many women reporting serious complications to doctors, Senator Siewert said.
The inquiry revealed there was not enough information about devices and doctors for women to make informed choices when dealing with incontinence or prolapse problems after childbirth, she said.
Senator Siewert said she was saddened but not surprised to hear of the suicide of NSW woman Alison Blake in 2015, only two weeks after a doctor told her nothing could be done to ease her pain or address the devastating consequences of pelvic mesh device surgery.
“Women have spoken about feeling suicidal and it doesn’t surprise me that somebody has. Women have spoken about the agony, the impact on every aspect of their lives,” Senator Siewert said.
She hoped the Senate report, which was due for release on Tuesday but will now be released next week, would help the thousands of women dealing with serious, permanent and incapacitating complications know that their evidence had been heard and “the community now knows this is a real issue”.
“The women don’t have to keep battling for people to recognise they’ve been left with extremely serious and lifelong impacts after mesh surgery. Now it’s a question of how we deal with that,” she said.
The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists did not respond to a request for comment.