Jerusalem hospital banishing silent treatment of menopause

JERUSALEM — Menopause has a bad name in Israel. The Hebrew word for it is blut, or withering. Too many women absorb this semantic message and suffer the physical and psychological discomforts of menopause in silence.

"The concept of a patient's rights, of the patient as partner, taking responsibility for her own well-being, is still new in Israel," says Dr. Drorit Hochner, a senior gynecologist at Jerusalem's Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center on Mount Scopus and head of its Menopause Clinic.

"Menopause is a particularly clear example of this: A consulting physician doesn't have time to explain much during most routine appointments, and there are many menopausal women who never consult a physician at all." While "people flock to childbirth courses and parenthood courses," she says, until recently there was no course for women "about what happens to them during menopause."

So, together with Dr. Miriam Lipsma, a senior nurse at Hadassah, Hochner designed a six-part patient-education program to help women in Israel become active partners in their own health and well-being during and after menopause.

"We have a lot of experience from our clinic," says Hochner, "as well as the staff of the Hadassah Medical Organization to draw on, so the course virtually built itself."

The Hadassah course, the first of its kind in Israel, is in steady demand. Known as "Friday On Mount Scopus," it attracts women in their early 40s to their early 60s, most of them married and most Israeli-born.

"We had no idea who the course would appeal to," says Hochner. "What we've found is that it appeals to everyone. Sixty percent of those who come are working women, and 40 percent have an academic education. Interestingly, 7 percent come from ultra-Orthodox backgrounds."

Each course takes 20 women, and opens by creating a basic understanding of menopause, explaining precisely what menopause is (why the ovaries stop working, what this means, what changes can be considered normal, what medical options exist). Then it goes on to consider whether menopause is a normal physiological event to which women must adjust, or whether it is a pathology — an endocrinological disorder like diabetes, resulting from the absence of certain hormones.

The next four sessions each focus on a specific topic, including menopause-related genito-urinary tract problems and nutrition.

"Too many menopausal women are failed dieters," says Hochner, "so we focus instead on healthy eating and areas like cholesterol control. Keeping in shape is also dealt with, but we bear in mind that many women hate working out. For them, we suggest 15-minute spurts of exercise they can do at home, and we reinforce the message by showing the relationship between physical fitness and reducing the risk of osteoporosis and coronary artery disease."

By far the most successful session in all five courses taught so far is the sixth and final session on sexuality, led by Dr. Anna Woloski-Wruble, acting assistant dean and director of academic affairs at the Hadassah Nursing School. "She's American, Orthodox, a feminist and the ideal person for this," says Hochner. "Her very clear message is that menopause has nothing to do with sexuality: menopause does not mean donning flannel pajamas and going straight to sleep each night!"

Pia Aisen, 47, of Jerusalem is attending Hadassah's current menopause course. "I'm a dentist and I keep up with the literature," she says, "but even so I felt I didn't have enough information about menopause and its ramifications. There's so much different research going on just now, and so much confusion. There's nowhere to get the complete picture."

At $80 for six, two-hour sessions, Aisen believed the course worth trying. "I expected to get something worthwhile out of it," she says, "but it's gone far beyond my expectations. The information we're given is up to date and well presented and the women who run the course are involved and positive."

As a result of the course, Hochner and her colleagues hope to see significantly increased compliance with treatments such as hormone replacement therapy. "At the moment, the compliance rate is very poor," she says, "but we expect this to change once women understand its benefits.

"We also plan to research women's expectations of their quality of life after menopause, and respond to what we find in our courses."