National Women's Health Policy

4. Ensure the health system is responsive to all women, with a clear focus on illness and disease prevention and health promotion

Page last updated: 07 February 2011

Women’s health concerns extend beyond specific health problems to include the structures that deliver health care and information, and the processes which influence women’s interactions with the health system on behalf of themselves, their families and extended networks. These structures and processes affect the quality of care women receive, their access to appropriate and acceptable services and their health outcomes.

The National Women’s Health Policy has been developed at a time of significant reform in the health system. These broader changes will make significant, ongoing contributions to women’s health outcomes.

This policy seeks to work within the framework of systemic health reform to influence health services to improve their responsiveness to all women through:

  • enhancing the skills of the health workforce;
  • building health system collaborations;
  • improving equity of access to health services for all women; and
  • promoting the empowerment and participation of women in decision making about their own health care.

Enhancing the skills of the health workforce

The consultations for this policy highlighted the need for the health workforce to be alert to the context of women’s lives.

Professional bodies offer a range of ongoing professional training, and should encourage participation in training for both gender and cultural awareness. Improved understanding by practitioners of women’s health issues will help to achieve better health outcomes.

Organisations should also look to innovative approaches, such as the use of e-learning in the provision of training opportunities—to increase participation and support a betterskilled workforce. Barriers that can impact on an individual’s decision to participate, or a workplace’s decision to support participation in training, can include time out of the workplace, workload, course affordability, and extra costs such as travel and accommodation.

Women’s health and equity competencies could be included in training for all new health professionals and in professional development for existing practitioners.

Building health system collaborations

There should be a focus on fostering partnerships between different health services. For example partnerships between mainstream service providers and specialty services such as multicultural health services, Indigenous health services or carers networks. These services can play a key role in building competence and understanding and in suggesting different models of service provision within the mainstream.

Improving equity of access to health services for all women

Health service provision should be tailored to meet identified needs of communities and their members. For example, BreastScreen Australia provides women with mammography services at rural and remote sites through specially equipped vans. Outreach services— especially to rural and remote areas—can make significant differences to women’s uptake of screening and preventative care.
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Outreach service planners should:
  • take into account women’s concerns for confidentiality and privacy;
  • ensure services are to be provided in consultation with the intended service users;
  • be affordable (or free);
  • incorporate language needs of specific communities; and
  • be culturally appropriate—women from specific cultural backgrounds, for example Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, may prefer female providers.

Promoting the empowerment and participation of women in decision making about their own health care

Women who actively participate in decisions about their health care generally achieve better health outcomes compared to those who do not. Those most likely to participate in decisions about their own health care tend to be younger and educated.454
Not all women are equally equipped to participate in health care decisions. Increasing involvement in health decision-making places demands on women’s literacy skills to understand complex health information and articulate their preferences. For some women, particularly those with lower levels of education and literacy, they may experience difficulties participating in the process.455

All women need to be able to make informed choices about their own health and health needs, but not all are equally equipped to participate in these decisions.456 Fostering and supporting programs to increase health literacy is vital.

Policy researchers and policy makers acknowledge health literacy as an important determinant of health.

In the Australian Bureau of Statistics Survey, health literacy is defined as: the knowledge and skills required to understand and use information relating to health issues such as drugs and alcohol, disease prevention and treatment, safety and accident prevention, first aid, emergencies, and staying healthy.

Australian Bureau of Statistics data on health literacy shows that 68.5 per cent of Australians aged 15–19 did not meet the minimum level of skill required to meet the complex demands of everyday life.457

Health literacy therefore requires reading, listening and analytical skills to enable an individual to make informed health choices and to understand their impact. Health materials and information should be developed for different groups of women and support marginalised groups of women to increase their skills provided by schools, community groups and advocacy organisations.

There will be an increased need to focus on materials appropriate for older women. Ageing causes physical, psychological and social change, and dependence on health care services and personal health care often increases. The ability to effectively care for oneself, and interact and communicate with health services, requires a reasonable level of health literacy. With a focus on illness and disease prevention and health promotion, explore opportunities within the new health reform context to support the development of health services that are responsive to all women.

4.1 In five years, conduct a review of and report on actions against National Women’s Health Policy that considers the impact of health reform developments on Australian women.
4.2 As local networks are developed, consider information and resources to support the consideration of gender and women’s diversity at the local level.
4.3 Explore existing programs that seek to support women’s involvement in health education and literacy, particularly women with mental illness and disability and older women, with the aim to identify best practice in this area.