Discussion around women’s health was once a taboo topic, the phrase “lady problems” being uttered in a whisper as a cover-all for polite society when explaining the absence of a woman at a social occasion or workplace. Mental images of fragile women taking to their beds as the dreaded “monthly visitor” made them feeble & helpless was a sure way to move the conversation on to more palatable topics.
It is shocking to think it wasn’t until 1989 when Australia introduced the first National Women’s Health Policy. What is more shocking is that Australia was the first country to have a comprehensive policy on women’s health to provide a framework for decision-making and guide Government policy. It was this recognition that women’s experience of mental & physical illness are different to men’s that created the change necessary to develop effective women’s health services.
Australia has made significant improvements to women’s health since 1989. In 2019 the Department of Health launched the National Women’s Health Strategy 2020-2030 with aims to improve the health and wellbeing of all women in Australia.
So what does “Women’s Health” actually mean? The National Women’s Health Strategy 2020-2030 have 5 key priority areas;
- Maternal, sexual & reproductive health
- Healthy aging
- Chronic conditions & preventative health
- Mental health
- Health impact of violence against women & girls
There are so many factors that influence health risks & outcomes for women including social, behavioural, economic and environmental as well as inequities such as access to services, health literacy & stigma. By recognising the broad range of health needs experienced by women at different stages of life, the strategy aims to drive continuing improvement with a Life Course approach to women’s health.
So is all of this working? Since 1989 there have been significant improvements in many areas women’s health, examples including; improved breast-cancer mortality rates, a significant reduction in tobacco & alcohol consumption in women and declining rates of cardiovascular disease year on year. This is all evidence that research, education and targeted interventions are effective in improving women’s health outcomes.
Some of the ongoing key health risks for women and girls in Australia that the strategy highlight are that mental health disorders are the leading cause of disability with 43% of Australian women experiencing mental illness over their lifetime, eating disorders are the third most common chronic illness amongst young women in Australia, 80% of people with incontinence are girls & women, 61% of people living with dementia are women and the incidence of lung cancer has been increasing in women for more than 20 years while it has been decreasing in men.
The National Women’s Health Strategy has identified policy gaps, highlighted emerging health issues for women, presented recommendations for action and urged collaboration between the Government, health sector and organisations representing women. Whilst the healthcare needs of women are as individual and varied as the women themselves, the aim of the strategy is fundamentally simple, to improve the physical & mental health & wellbeing of all women & girls at every stage of their lives.