By Diana Pou Ottenwalder

On July 23, 2018, a group of 20 women gathered in Cafe Bilderbuch for the Menstrual Health Hub’s eighth Meetup. The women met for a brainstorming session with Alice Backwell, the creator of a new podcast that aims to help navigate non-German speakers the female health landscape in Berlin.

The participants came from diverse backgrounds: a Romanian educator, an Italian Yoga instructor, an American journalist. Yet, when Alice asked the women present to raise their hands if they had experienced any difficulties while attempting to access female health services in Berlin, most did so. Moreover, approximately 75%  of participants expressed dissatisfaction with their current gynecologist or admitted to having yet found one.

One of the main challenges for non-German speakers to accessing female health services in Berlin is, of course, the language barrier. In fact, Alice’s idea for her podcast came about after researching medical practitioners in Berlin. While there was plenty of information in German, she realized that sources in any other language were quite limited. Meetup participants confirmed how overwhelming Germany’s healthcare system can seem to non-German speakers. As a result, various admitted to having never visited a medical practitioner in Berlin, despite the fact that health insurance is mandatory in Germany.

Additionally, Berlin’s health care landscape can be particularly challenging because the city’s public health agenda strongly influences patient experience. That is, the city establishes a series of guidelines for doctors on how to best deliver health services; deviating from these guidelines can prove difficult.

So a young woman might be strongly advised to get a yearly pap smear, despite the fact that she might not even need one, because the city deems it a best practice.

Or conversely, a woman might struggle to access female health services she believes she needs because her situation does not neatly fit the criteria established by the city for the provision of said service. As a result, more than half of the women present in the meetup have struggled to access sexually transmitted infections (STIs) testing to the extent that they deemed necessary. For example, one of the participants described her experience at a city clinic. She went in for STI testing. Based on the city guidelines, her doctor recommended a cervical swab, but for safety measures, she also wanted an oral one. Since she did not fit the criteria for the latter, her doctor initially refused to perform an oral swab. It was only after she lied and exaggerated the dramatic nature of her situation, that her doctor acquiesced to the oral swab test.

Additionally, while not necessarily inherent to Berlin or Germany, most of the women present had stories pertaining to cultural and societal prejudices. One woman recounted having her doctor recommend against STI testing because she looked “like a nice girl.”

Another woman, from Pakistan, told the group how one doctor told her it was hard to believe that “someone from such a conservative country would be so sexually active.”

Despite these stories, one cannot deny that Berlin has made many advances in female health. The morning-after pill became available prescription-free in the city’s pharmacies in 2015. Moreover, the city runs sexual health and family planning centers in five different locations—Mitte, Friedrichshain/Kreuzberg, Charlottenburg, Marzahn-Hellersdorf, and Steglitz-Zehlendorf—which provide sexual health care services at a low cost. The city has also become a breeding ground for female health apps, such as Clue and Luna. – Selfcare, which provide women with menstrual tracking features and / or personalized self-care recommendations.

Nevertheless, there is much room for improvement. Female health care goes beyond its technical aspects. As one of the women present said,

“female health care is not only about finding a doctor who speaks English. It is also about finding one who doesn’t weird you out … one with empathy, who sees patients as people.”

We couldn’t agree more.

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Please find notes and resources from the evening HERE.

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If you would like to join the Berlin Female Health Collective, simply do so on Facebook or Meetup:

  • https://www.facebook.com/groups/420324021700855/
  • https://www.meetup.com/Drinks-to-support-female-health/

Learn more about the Menstrual Health Hub (MH Hub) at www.mhhub.org

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Special thanks to Diana Pou Ottenwalder for writing this blogpost.