Improving women’s health outcomes through increased access to information

29 / 08 / 2016

We would like to thank the Jean Hailes for Women’s Health Foundation for furnishing us a piece on the state of play of key issues affecting women’s health in Australia, and as a reflection on the upcoming Jean Hailes Women’s Health Week, a time to focus on our health, learn more and take action.

By Nicole Shilo

How we talk about health can be shaped by many things, including the impacts of gender and place on experiences of health. As a starting point, it’s important to think about our definition of health, what we see as the determinants of health and the role of health literacy in reducing health inequities.

The World Health Organization defines health as being a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity. (1)

The social model of health acknowledges that health takes place in a social context which includes gender as part of a wider complex of factors impacting on health which are also gendered in some way. For instance, there are gendered aspects to income status.  Earlier this year, Australia’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency reported an average full-time gender pay gap of 17.3%, with large variables depending on where you live. (2) This determinant plays a significant role in health literacy and access to services and information.

Health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.(3)

There are links between low health literacy and poorer health outcomes due to poor understanding of preventive care information and access to preventive care services. (4) Once you add an overlay of gender and place, it becomes even more critical to improve women’s access to health information as well as to deliver that information in ways that are easy to understand.

Health inequities are the differences in health status between population groups that are socially produced, systematic in their unequal distribution, avoidable and unfair.(5) As long as gendered health inequities exist, there are negative and compounding impacts on women’s ability to enjoy full social and economic participation. This alone is a compelling reason to take action, with improvements to health literacy a key step forward.

Jean Hailes for Women’s Health is a national not-for-profit responding to gender and equity issues in health.  We have a rights based approach to health and aim to improve women’s access to health information, wherever they are.

Jean Hailes recognises that specific challenges facing women’s health in Australia include:

  • – Women have different health needs throughout their lives
  • – Gender-based differences in health outcomes
  • – Significant health inequities persist, particularly for women in disadvantaged, regional, rural and remote areas, culturally and linguistically diverse and Indigenous communities
  • – Rising levels of chronic and complex disease challenge us as a community but also as individuals to take responsibility for our health – this requires access to easily understood information
  • – Many women experience poorer health outcomes because they are disproportionately exposed to a complex of risks which may include: gender-based violence, poverty, the disproportionate burden of unpaid caregiving and barriers to accessing the protections of education and income-generating work
  • – Women need to experience health in order to enjoy full social and economic participation.

Where you live can also have a direct effect on your health and wellbeing. According to an Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) study in 2011, ‘Health outside major cities’, there are many long-term health conditions and risk factors that are more common outside of major cities, including mental health issues, high blood pressure, smoking, obesity, and long term risky drinking behaviour.

While heart disease is the biggest killer for all Australians, non-city-dwellers are 70% more likely to die from heart failure and 31% more likely to die from a stroke.

The Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health (ALSWH) shows with increasing distance from major cities there is a decrease in women seeing medical specialists. Dentistry is a prime example, with city-based women visiting their dentist 50% more than rural women. The rates for breast screening and Pap smears are pretty similar for both groups of women, but women living rurally were least happy about their level of access to these services. (6)

Dr Deidre Bentley is a Jean Hailes GP specialising in women’s health who sees these issues firsthand across rural Victoria. “Women living in rural communities have a range of healthcare disadvantages compared to women in urban or inner regional areas,” says Dr Bentley. “They may have difficulty accessing specialist services, often needing to travel longer distances, wait for longer periods or not be able to see a GP they know.” Then there is also the problem of privacy in a small town, especially surrounding sexual health, domestic violence or pregnancy. “If a woman knows her GP or his or her receptionist socially, she may be reluctant to discuss these issues, meaning conditions may go undiagnosed or untreated until they become serious or require hospitalisation,” says Dr Bentley.

A farmer's wife looking toward the horizon. She expresses concern and worry in tough times.

Improving access to women’s health information in rural and regional communities

Each year Jean Hailes conducts a national survey of women and health professionals to determine gaps in women’s health information.  These findings are analysed and translated into the annual Women’s Health Week campaign. In 2015, 3325 women and health professionals responded, a significant proportion of whom lived or worked in rural and regional Australia.

Now in its fourth year, Women’s Health Week has three main aims:

    • 1. Raising awareness of the importance of maintaining good health and preventing future health problems
    • 2. Ensuring women across Australia are aware of the health services in their local community
    • 3. Encouraging personal-responsibility as part of an ongoing development and focus on ongoing prevention.

Women’s Health Week (WHW) has an innovative mix of digital education and engagement supported by community led women’s health events across Australia:

    • 1. A week-long online event with a dedicated website as its hub, providing evidence based women’s health information in a variety of formats to women at different life stages.
    • 2. Community led events across Australia, run by health professionals, community groups, small businesses and large organisations with a focus on local women’s health priorities, supported by a resource package from Jean Hailes.

These community led events are particularly important as a means of improving women’s access to health information in rural and regional areas.

Last year, 36% of community events were held in regional and rural Australia while three in ten registrants resided in regional and rural Australia. This statistic supports Jean Hailes efforts to engage with and reach women in regional and rural areas, who have limited access to health information and health care services.

Partnering with community health providers is a key aspect of Women’s Health Week, particularly in rural and regional areas. This allows us to work around the digital divide in non-metropolitan areas and make the most of their existing relationships of trust with local women. It allows our partners to use Jean Hailes resources in ways that respond to specific local needs.

There are already 209 organisations, 70 in Victoria, who have registered to deliver an event during Women’s Health Week (5 to 9 September 2016.)

We’d love to engage even more women across Victoria, wherever they are, and we encourage women to go to www.womenshealthweek.com.au to subscribe to receive health related information each day of the campaign, register an event or register to participate in the live webcast.

Jean Hailes for Women’s Health

Based in Melbourne, Jean Hailes for Women’s Health is a national not-for-profit women’s health organisation that tackles the gender-based risks to health, with a focus on disease prevention. Jean Hailes addresses women’s physical and mental health and wellbeing from a life course perspective and also considers the commonality of risk factors for chronic disease.

The Jean Hailes engagement platform encompasses the Translation, Education and Communication Unit and the Jean Hailes Research Unit at Monash University, headed by world renowned women’s mental health expert, Professor Jane Fisher. Jean Hailes also offers multidisciplinary women’s health clinics in Clayton and East Melbourne.

Established in 1992, the organisation was created in memory of the late Dr Jean Hailes, a renowned GP from Victoria who dedicated her career to advancing women’s health.

Find out more: www.jeanhailes.org.au

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References:

  1. 1. World Health Organization, WHO definition of Health, http://www.who.int/about/definition/en/print.html Accessed 4 August 2016
  2. 2. Workplace Gender Equality Agency. 2016. Gender pay gap statistics. https://www.wgea.gov.au/sites/default/files/Gender_Pay_Gap_Factsheet.pdf Accessed 4 August 2016
  3. 3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2000.Healthy People 2010. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Originally developed for Ratzan SC, Parker RM. 2000. Introduction. InNational Library of Medicine Current Bibliographies in Medicine: Health Literacy. Selden CR, Zorn M, Ratzan SC, Parker RM, Editors. NLM Pub. No. CBM 2000-1. Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  4. 4. Benjamin, R. M. 2010. Improving Health by Improving Health Literacy.Public Health Reports,125(6), 784–785.
  5. 5. VicHealth 2015, Addressing determinants in healthy settings approaches, Victorian Health Promotion Foundation
  6. 6. Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health, data from http://www.alswh.org.au/ Accessed 4 August 2016
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