Dr Nighat is a British GP specialising in women's health, family planning and menopause care with over 15 years of experience in the NHS and she runs her own private practice. She is the resident Doctor on BBC Breakfast and ITV This Morning. She is a radio presenter at BBC Three Counties. As well as an Ambassador for Wellbeing of Women and member of the UN backed Team Halo initiative. She is the honorary recipient of the 2023 SHE Awards for her work around Women's Health and author of her new book 'The Knowledge. Everything you need to know from Menstruation to Menopause". It is an illustrated, inclusive book for all things Women's Health.
We talk to Dr Nighat about the correlation between creativity and women’s health and championing women in the health sector.
Can you share with us your journey into becoming a Doctor, and what made you specialise in women’s health?
When I arrived in the UK age 9 I did not speak English. I learnt as much as I could from those around me. I grew up knowing that I wanted to be educated so that I could be free from the shackles of being someone’s daughter or someone’s wife. I wanted to have achievements in my own right. I wanted to do something that transcends my gender, my faith and the colour of skin and therefore I chose to become a doctor.
I went to Queen Marys, Barts and the London School and was determined to become an gastroenterologist, however as a junior doctors I quickly realised I don’t function well on lack of sleep and doing nights was something I could not bear. I started looking at Women’s Health as a GP, and gradually understood the lack of research for so many health conditions. Being bilingual in Punjabi and Urdu I thought I would be useful to the women in my community who are too ashamed to talk about their gynae problems with male doctors.
In light of your experience in this field, what are some of the often neglected and misunderstood health issues related to women?
Where do I start! As a woman myself I have often found it hard to advocate for myself if in labour pain. I have 3 children and varying experiences in my pregnancies. This I have found is the case for many pakistani women I talk to in my community. Understanding, endometriosis, infertility, polycystic Ovary Syndrome and the Menopause have all made the headlines. I am keen for women of color, women of faith and underrepresented groups to be seen and heard when healthcare pathways are formulated in the NHS.
As a GP appearing on BBC Breakfast, what kind of topics do you typically discuss with the hosts, and how do you approach these discussions?
Since 2019 when I first appeared on BBC Breakfast alongside Louise Minchin and Dan Walker, I started off with talking about how menopause is viewed in South Asian communities, and since then the Pandemic hit in 2020, I became one of the regular doctors on the BBC. I approached every topic, whether it be inequalities in women’s health, covid 19 vaccinations, raising awareness of breast cancer, tackling understanding around public health messaging under lockdown with a clear message that I would impart to ONE patient in front of me. I would forget that over 10 million viewers were watching me, to me I was and currently still always talk to one person who can take away my message and share it with others.
How do you perceive the correlation between art and women’s health-related issues?
I fundamentally believe art and women’s health have a very intimate relationship. I have understood my body and women’s bodies through illustrations and art. I am dyslexic and so I prefer things visually and also art has a way to conveying emotion, empathy, understanding and rapport more that words sometimes.
To what extent can art play a role in enhancing patient care and the work of medical practitioners?
It plays a massive role. I often draw, show picture of the anatomy of the body to explain to the patient what I find and what my clinical diagnosis is. I often say if you have a car and something goes wrong you want to see all the parts and how they make your car work- we should have the same with our bodies.
You have a joyful and powerful presence on social media. How do you often stay connected with your audience?
I will let you into a secret, I smile when I am nervous! So people assume I am joyful, which I am- but my default demeanor is to smile when I am scared. I realised in the pandemic when everyone was connected to social and mainstream media I had a knack of looking into the camera lens and spiel out medicine that I knew in a way that made sense to me and the millions that watched or listened to me. I think because I am dyslexic the way I look at complex data and medical texts is that I have to dumb it down to the common denominator and then if I understand it, I know I can relay that information to others. This allows me to connect, be clear and say things how I would in my consultations or if I was sitting having coffee with you.
Can you give us an insight into your advocacy efforts and how they have made a difference?
I think my greatest achievement is having worked with the UN Initiative Team Halo, particularly on the COVID Vaccine campaign for Black and Asian communities, which was further supported by BBC Breakfast and This Morning. This was really impactful, and the uptake of the vaccine improved, helping to save lives in the pandemic. I later on presented our Team Halo Data at the G7 Summit for Vaccine Confidence in July 2021. I have been a part of the Menopause Bus campaign with my ITV, This Moring team from the start in London, to Liverpool and then Manchester. Women and men have really supported us as we have travelled around and I feel a real sense of change when it comes to better care for women's health for the future. I have part of ‘Know your Menopause’ with Pausitivity, the All Parliamentary Menopause in the workplace initiate, The Wellbeing of Women ‘Lets Chat Menopause’ as well as be their ambassador. It's so important to reduce the stigma, shame around the menopause and make the conversation inclusive for women from all backgrounds.
Then on March 8th International Women’s day, I was awarded an honorary SHE Award for my work on empowering and educating on Women’s Health. My Whole family attended the awards which was incredible.
Can you give us an update on the work you have been up to lately and what you are most excited about in the future?
2023 is already shaping up to be an exciting year, with a visit to No.10 Downing Street for Breast Cancer Awareness and Round Table meetings for the future of Women’s Health.
As the ambassador for the Charity Wellbeing of Women I will be working in close partnership with Professor Dame Lesley Regan the ambassador for the Women’s Health Strategy and looking at improving care in England for women and girls.
I have started my own Private Women’s Health clinic alongside my NHS work which is going from strength to strength. My debut all color illustrated book on all things women’s health is coming out in July. It is called ‘The Knowledge. Everything from Menstruation to Menopause.” it is an inclusive book for all girls from age 14+ onwards as well as for boys and Men to understand the women around them. So hopefully a book tour and keep educating on my social media platforms.
Can you suggest any resources or references for women that you consider particularly valuable?
The NHS website is brilliant resource for all things health related. The Balance Website by Dr Louise Newson is fab for lots of free information on all thing menopause. And finally my Instagram and TikTok has lots of bitesize evidence based medical content follow me @drnighatarif
My upcoming book The Knowledge, Your guide to female health from menstruation to the menopause is also a great resource. The Knowledge is an extensive guidebook designed to help everyone better understand each of the three key stages of a woman's life: the puberty years, the fertility years and the peri/menopausal years. It will help you to get to know the female body by explaining what is normal, what to expect, how to care for yourself and when to seek help. The book will tackle many important topics: from the help available for people with conditions like endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome to the symptoms of heart disease to look out for in women. It is available to pre-order now: https://www.hachette.co.uk/titles/dr-nighat-arif/the-knowledge/9781783255238/
How do you envision Islamic arts contributing to the discourse on women's health and general healthcare and what kind of impact do you expect this to have?
For centuries of female exclusion has meant women's conditions are often missed, misdiagnosed or remain a total mystery however our creative impulse is fundamental to the experience of being human. We learn about our mental wellbeing, our relationship with our body and what it is capable through art. In Islam, women have played a powerful role in understanding the freedoms and human rights entitled to women.
As a Muslim woman, I feel Islamic art allows me to understand my faith and my clinical work in a more meaningful way because faith provides me hope when I cannot cure someone’s cancer, or cure endometriosis that is rendering my patient infertile when all she wants is to have a child. I am a clinician who lives in eternal hope that good things are everywhere!
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