The Senators inquiring into the use of transvaginal mesh implants in Australia were very clear about their intentions.
They wanted their report to enable people to hear and learn from the experiences of women who’d been harmed – by the mesh implants, as well as by the subsequent responses of health professionals, systems and regulators.
The Senate Community Affairs References Committee report makes for harrowing reading, recording the emotional and physical traumas of hundreds of women who shared often deeply personal stories.
“The committee has sought to place these women at the forefront of this inquiry,” says the report – while acknowledging evidence “that the vast majority of women who have had transvaginal mesh procedures as part of treatment for stress urinary incontinence (SUI) or pelvic organ prolapse (POP) have not experienced complications as a result of their surgery and have experienced improved quality of life.”
The Senators state: “The committee considers that it is of no consolation to women who have lost so much to be told that they are part of a very small minority.”
The report also records the Senators’ damning assessment of health professionals and services involved in the cases they considered: “Even allowing for the positive accounts provided to the committee and the fact that some accounts are recalling events of over ten or fifteen years ago, they present the medical profession in a very poor light.”
Since beginning the inquiry in February 2017, the committee received 555 submissions and said they had been “struck by the extent to which women who have had adverse experiences following transvaginal mesh surgery have struggled to be heard as they have sought to raise concerns about their symptoms”.
The vast majority of more than 500 women who wrote to the committee had experienced adverse events following surgery to implant surgical mesh.
The committee said they received “many accounts describing the challenges and frustration that patients have faced in having their symptoms addressed, or indeed taken seriously”, and that these struggles to cope with their symptoms and to find support and treatment have had “far reaching and devastating impacts on their lives and the lives of their families”.
Some women had waited years for recognition and treatment to address their symptoms, “all the while suffering debilitating pain, physical limitations, social isolation and financial and emotional stress”.
“Sadly many women recounted being spoken to angrily or disrespectfully when they have asked questions about their symptoms and spoke of feeling humiliated, embarrassed and upset… Other women have been told that their symptoms are imagined.”
Dismissive and disrespectful
Committee members said they could “find no reasonable justification for the dismissive and disrespectful treatment many women have experienced from trusted medical professionals”.
They cited Stella Channing of the Australian Pelvic Mesh Support Group, who told the committee: “To add insult to injury, many women who have gone for consultations have been scoffed at, mocked, humiliated and disregarded by some of their doctors”.
These comments, invalidating women’s lived experience, showed “how the health system silences, shames and blames the victims,” Channing said.
The committee also expressed deep concern “about the inconsistent and at times cursory manner in which consent has been obtained”, and said that “many women appear to have received little or no information to assist them to make a decision or provide their informed consent”.
The Senators were “dismayed” by reports some women had not been told they had received a transvaginal mesh implant as part of treatment. As well, some were not informed that the implant is intended to be permanent and can be difficult to remove.
One woman who had transvaginal mesh surgery in 2004 to address minor incontinence told the committee of her horror when she learnt that the mesh was permanent.
The report cites a Consumers Health Forum submission that there had been “a catastrophic failure of the health system to protect women and ensure they have access to safe health care”, and that women had “been let down by their doctors, by the manufacturers of mesh and by the TGA [Therapeutic Goods Administration] as the regulator”.
The committee members said they encourage “women not to accept unprofessionalism by medical practitioners and to consider reporting any concerns they might have, either to the medical practice or hospital, or in the case of more serious complaints, to the health care ombudsman in the relevant state”.
They agreed with a Public Health Association of Australia description of the complications resulting from transvaginal mesh implants as a serious public health issue requiring a response at an individual and a population level – including counselling, public education, clinical interventions and long-lasting protective mechanisms.
The report includes many distressing accounts from women of the wide-ranging impacts upon their health and lives, including their relationships.
Symptoms include chronic vaginal pain and recurrent urinary tract infections. Many woman told of experiencing mesh exposure or erosion – the protrusion of mesh fibres through the vaginal wall, which can lead to discomfort and pain, including bleeding and pain during intercourse, as well as infections, adhesions to the bowel and bladder and faecal incontinence.
Stella Channing told the committee:
The women have lost their health, and in many cases they have lost their jobs, their careers, their homes and, in some cases, their husbands. The pain and complications cause them to be isolated from their friends and families, and many suffer from depression, anxiety and PTSD. Many women are shocked and in despair when they realise that they will probably never regain their health or their life back.
The Women’s Health and Research Institute of Australia told the committee that “often words cannot convey the degree of human suffering we are seeing”.
Many women said they had withdrawn from social and family activities, too embarrassed to explain their symptoms to friends and family and unable to engage in work or normal social activity. Others told of their inability to care for their children or interact with their grandchildren.
The committee was struck by how many women reported the breakdown of their marriages; many found it extremely painful or impossible to sustain an intimate relationship after the surgery, and spoke of the emotional pain and grief involved.
Many women told of the financial toll of needing treatment for complications from mesh surgery, including for pain management, scans, and incontinence and mobility aids.
Women had used up their leave, drawn upon their superannuation, sold valuables and, in some cases sold or mortgaged houses and drawn on the generosity of friends and family to fund their treatment.
Some had travelled overseas to have the mesh devices removed.
Meanwhile, the committee heard that some hospitals have been charging patients to release medical records.
Background to the inquiry
A timeline at the end of this article describes the history of transvaginal mesh implants, a form of urogynaecological mesh that is implanted in a surgical procedure via an incision in the vagina or abdomen to address pelvic floor conditions.
The mesh is a synthetic net-like substance designed to provide extra support to repair weakened and damaged internal tissue. Its holes allow the body’s own tissues to grow into the mesh.
Mesh devices for the treatment of stress urinary incontinence (SUI) or pelvic organ prolapse (POP) are usually made from the same material, but the procedures to implant them are different and each has different risks and benefits.
The report says the prevalence and severity of problems associated with transvaginal mesh implants has risen since the first adverse event was reported in Australia in 2006. These can occur immediately after surgery or take years to manifest.
Class actions have been initiated against manufacturers and suppliers of urogynaecological mesh devices in a number of countries, including the US, UK, and Canada.
Internationally, women have been at the forefront of efforts to lobby for reviews of the use of transvaginal mesh, leading to inquiries in New Zealand, Scotland, England and other countries.
In 2016, the latest update of the Cochrane systematic review of clinical publications of evidence on the use of mesh for POP concluded that mesh “might be useful for particular individual women, who might be willing to accept the risks, but that there was limited information regarding the benefits and risks and more research was needed”.
The Senators’ report highlights the complexity of regulatory and oversight arrangements for the mesh devices, involving the TGA, the medical colleges and the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care (ACSQHC).
The TGA undertook its first post market review of urogynaecological meshes in 2008, in response to a United States Food and Drug Administration safety alert.
Professional colleges influence the standard of care delivered by practitioners through education and training, the provision of guidance for the management of clinical conditions in women’s health and standards for professional behaviour and research.
However, while the colleges can guide and advise, they have no regulatory role in relation to standards of clinical practice, outside auditing doctors’ compliance with continuing professional development. Credentialing of individual doctors is the responsibility of credentialing committees within individual hospitals.
Limitations with data sources meant the committee could not make a definitive finding on how many women have had transvaginal mesh implants in Australia, although one expert estimated that between 150,000 and 175,000 transvaginal mesh procedures had been performed for POP and SUI.
Nor could the committee establish how many women had experienced complications.
However, it is clear that adverse events have been significantly under-reported to the TGA, with the Health Issues Centre recording that 2,400 women had provided it with personal accounts of adverse events by August 2017.
Data provided by Medibank indicated that, in the years 2012-2013, four per cent of patients insured by Medibank who had transvaginal mesh inserted had a readmission within the next three years for a complication associated with that implant.
The committee said it was concerned that under-reporting of adverse events associated with transvaginal mesh products had “provided a false indication of the safety of such devices and contributed to delays in responding to the issues identified. The committee is deeply concerned that this has resulted in more women suffering complications.”
The committee heard a range of evidence regarding the interactions between device manufacturers or sponsors and medical practitioners. Such concerns ranged from questions over the presence of sponsor representatives in the surgical theatre to the possibility of financial inducements to medical practitioners to use specific products.
The committee notes widespread support for the establishment of a national register of medical devices and said such work currently underway through COAG should be prioritised.
The committee recommends the TGA take action to educate and encourage doctors to report adverse incidents associated with the use of medical devices, and recommends that the Department of Health and Ageing introduce mandatory reporting for health practitioners to the TGA on relevant issues, including problems with medical devices.
The TGA and the ACSQHC should develop an information sheet for recipients of patient cards for implantable devices providing guidance on appropriate action if an adverse event occurs.
The committee welcomed recently announced measures to increase the level of pre-market scrutiny of surgical mesh devices, and requirements to increase the level of information available to consumers regarding medical devices.
The committee said TGA moves to restrict the use of transvaginal mesh for POP meant the mesh would in effect only be available under a special access scheme and will limit the ability of medical professionals to use transvaginal mesh for the treatment of POP except in certain circumstances.
The committee recommends that the Department of Health work with the Medical Technology Association of Australia and the Medical Board of Australia to review the systems in place within the device manufacturing industry and the medical professions to support consistent, high ethical standards, with specific emphasis on systems in place to prevent the payment of inducements to medical professionals and teaching hospitals.
It also recommended that Commonwealth, states and territory governments commission the ACSQHC to do an audit of all transvaginal mesh procedures undertaken in Australia, and their outcomes.
Other measures in train
The committee notes that the ACSQHC is finalising resources on the symptoms of POP and SUI together with the range of treatment options available, and is also developing care pathways for these conditions, and for the removal of transvaginal mesh.
The ACSQHC has also developed guidance for the credentialing and training of senior medical practitioners who implant transvaginal mesh for the treatment of POP and SUI and also for the removal of transvaginal mesh.
The ASQHC advised the committee that each state and territory is reviewing the provision of services for the use and removal of transvaginal mesh, and some have developed specific information resources and support services, including dedicated telephone information and referral services.
The report said the ACSQHC should also develop guidance material on effective informed consent.
“There is also a clear need to improve the communication skills of some medical practitioners to ensure that they are communicating effectively with, and listening to patients,” the committtee said.
The Consumers Health Forum said the report highlighted the need for rigour and scrutiny in the introduction of medical devices such as mesh, the requirement for effective training including for the possible removal of mesh devices, and close surveillance of the performance of such products.
The Forum’s CEO, Leanne Wells, said: “We support the position that mesh should be the last resort and other measures should be fully explored first. This is not to deny women the choice of having a mesh implant but this must be linked to improved informed consent.”
She acknowledged that the TGA had already begun work on introducing patient device cards and consumer device information leaflets, which will begin to take effect with new urogynaecological devices from 1 December.
A statement by state and territory based health consumer organisations welcomed the report’s recognition of the extent and impact of harms to women, but said they had hoped the report would have gone further.
“We are disappointed that a more cautious approach wasn’t taken, to recommend the suspension in use of all mesh until the data is in to establish their safety and efficacy,” said Melissa Fox, CEO of Health Consumers Queensland.
“These devices will continue to be implanted in women in hospitals across Australia tomorrow, and not one more woman should be unwittingly subjected to this high-stakes surgical intervention until we can be assured of their safety.”
However, she welcomed the report’s recommendations for strengthened provisions for informed consent, only using mesh as a last resort, requiring mandatory reporting of complications, establishing a register and having the ACSQHC do an audit of transvaginal mesh procedures in Australia.
“The Commission must be resourced to do this in a timely manner and the audit should also include procedures done by private specialists,” she said.