Jeremy Hunt, the health and social care secretary, has launched a nine-month review into how the NHS addresses concerns about medical treatments, including vaginal mesh devices.
Speaking in the House of Commons, he admitted the government had failed to respond adequately to a series of public health scandals caused by the side-effects of medical treatments, citing the surgical mesh scandal as a key example.
The review will also look at the regulation of the hormone pregnancy test drug Primodos and the anti-epilepsy drug sodium valproate.
The review, led by the former Conservative health minister Baroness Cumberlege, will also consider whether there are grounds for wider inquiries into the failings alleged by campaigners.
Hunt admitted responses to the issues “have not always been good enough”. Pledging to come up with a quicker and more balanced system, he admitted that the stress and frustration felt by campaign groups on these issues had often “added insult to injury”.
“We must acknowledge that the response to these issues from those in positions of authority has not always been good enough,” he said.
“Sometimes the reaction has felt overly focused on defending the status quo rather than addressing the needs of patients, and as a result patients and their families have spent too long feeling that they were not being listened to, making the agony of a complex medical situation even worse,” he said.
In the past decade, more than 100,000 women have had vaginal mesh surgery to treat urinary incontinence, which is common after childbirth, according to NHS figures. But there is disagreement about the scale of problems linked to the devices, with campaigners saying women have been exposed to unacceptable risks.
Most mesh devices were launched without clinical trials, meaning the complication rates were never established prospectively.
Official guidance has suggested the figure is 3-5%, but recent research has suggested the true complication rate could be between 10-15% and a Guardian investigation found that up to 1 in 15 women subsequently require partial or full removal of their implant.
Last month, a full retrospective audit of women who have undergone vaginal mesh surgery was launched by the government to establish how many have experienced complications following the procedure.
The Labour MP Owen Smith, who set up the all-party parliamentary group on surgical mesh implants that looked into the safety of mesh devices, welcomed the review but criticised the government for failing to suspend the use of mesh until after the review has concluded, as has happened in New Zealand.
The shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, agreed, saying the review “falls short of the calls for a full public inquiry that campaigners have been (demanding)”.
Kath Sansom, the founder of the campaign group Sling the Mesh, pointed out that women have had to fight for years to get their voices heard, “often being dismissed as mad, hysterical or a minority suffering”.
“So many women’s and families lives have been shattered by medical devices and drugs that were never tested on humans before being released en masse to women globally,” she said. “We were human guinea pigs.”