National Women's Health Policy

Executive Summary

Page last updated: 07 February 2011


The purpose of the National Women’s Health Policy 2010 is to continue to improve the health and wellbeing of all women in Australia, especially those at greatest risk of poor health.

The policy recognises the solid foundation of the first National Women’s Health Policy: Advancing Women’s Health in Australia which was released in 1989. It continues the commitment to building an environment where more can be done to ensure that all Australian women have better health and health care. This policy encourages the active participation of women in their own health and aims to promote health equity through attention to the social determinants of health.

The policy adopts a dual priority approach that recognises the importance of addressing immediate and future health challenges while also addressing the fundamental ways in which society is structured that impacts on women’s health and wellbeing. The policy reflects the equal priorities of:
  • Maintaining and developing health services and prevention programs to treat and avoid disease through targeting health issues that will have the greatest impact over the next two decades; and
  • Aiming to address health inequities through broader reforms addressing the social determinants of health.

Key health priorities and challenges

Since the first National Women’s Health Policy was released, women’s lives have undergone significant social, economic and technological changes. Overall, significant improvements have been made in the health of Australian women, for example in rates of cardiovascular disease, cancer and a reduction in smoking rates. However, these improvements have not been experienced equally throughout the community. Certain groups of Australia women, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, experience markedly worse health than the general population. A range of socially based determinants can impact on the ability of some groups of Australian women to access the resources needed to maintain
good health. A key ongoing health challenge is to address these inequalities.

Some health issues, for example, risk factors such as obesity and mental health particularly anxiety and depression have become increasing issues for women over the last two decades.

The next few decades will continue to see fundamental changes to the structure of the Australian population as a result of historic patterns of fertility, migration and changes in life expectancy. Projections indicate that women will make up an increasing proportion of the old and very old segment of the Australian population over time. The ageing of the female population will have a significant impact on the Australian health system. For example, the burden of disease associated with dementia in women is estimated to double in the next 20 years.
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Priority health issues

Through research and consultation, a series of evidence-based health priorities have been identified that represent the major challenges associated with death and burden of disease for women in the next 20 years. These health priority areas are:

1. Prevention of chronic diseases through the control of risk factors; targeting chronic disease such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer, as well as risk factors such as obesity, nutrition, physical inactivity, alcohol and tobacco consumption. The policy also encourages a clearer understanding of the context of women’s lives, including the barriers that prevent women taking up healthier lifestyle behaviours.

2. Mental health and wellbeing; targeting anxiety, depression and suicide.

3. Sexual and reproductive health; targeting access to information and services relating to sexual health, reproductive health, safe sex practices, screening and maternal health. The importance of the health of mothers prior to conception, during pregnancy and in the post-natal period can have a profound and long term effect on their own health and that of their children.

4. Healthy ageing; targeting musculo-skeletal conditions, disability and dementia. The policy highlights that the social, economic and environmental conditions under which women live and age can affect their experience of old age.

Action areas

Actions are drawn from existing Government responses and new actions are proposed in the following areas; prevention of chronic disease through the control of risk factors, mental health and wellbeing, sexual and reproductive health and healthy ageing.

Social determinants of health

There is a complex relationship between physical and social determinants of health. The policy therefore focuses on highlighting the social determinants having the greatest impact on women’s lives. The social determinants of health examined in the National Women’s Health Policy are:
  • Sex and gender - these are major determinants of health and wellbeing, and it is important that these are considered to improve women’s access to health services and information.
  • Life stages - Research has demonstrated that the health needs of women differ through stages of their lifecycle. The evidence of the past 20 years has confirmed the importance of taking a life course approach, preventing the accumulation of health risk factors and giving girls and women age-appropriate health care they require.
  • Access to resources - Women’s access to key resources such as income, education, employment, social connections and safety and security, including freedom from violence`, affect their health outcomes and their access to health care. These factors are in turn implicated in women’s risk behaviours, although in complex and varied ways.
  • Diversity - Marginalisation and discrimination against diverse women, affect their access to resources and, therefore, impact their health and wellbeing.
The policy examines longer term strategies for addressing the social determinants of health through the establishment of five policy goals. These are intended to highlight ways that gender inequality and health inequities (between women and men, and between differing groups of women) can be addressed.

The policy goals are to:
1. Highlight the significance of gender as a key determinant of women’s health and wellbeing.
2. Acknowledge that women’s health needs differ according to their life stage.
3. Prioritise the needs of women with the highest risk of poor health.
4. Ensure the health system is responsive to all women, with a clear focus on illness prevention and health promotion.
5. Support effective and collaborative research, data collection, monitoring, evaluation and knowledge transfer to advance the evidence base on women’s health.

There is an opportunity to ensure that these goals are reflected in the health reform process, to develop a health system that is more responsive to the needs of Australian women.