National Women's Health Policy

Introduction

Page last updated: 07 February 2011

Australia has made significant gains in women’s health since the introduction of the first National Women’s Health Policy in 1989. Australian women enjoy a longer life expectancy than most women from other countries. Universal access to health care and essential pharmaceuticals means that treatment and support are generally available in times of illness. Yet, in many important ways, women are still disadvantaged in some aspects of their health.

Some groups of women do not have reasonable access to health services, or a health provider that is knowledgeable and supportive of their special health needs. Women’s health needs change throughout the course of their lives and it is important that they have the right information to optimise their health. This includes being able to prevent avoidable illness and to detect and treat any disease as early as possible.

The National Women’s Health Policy 2010 recognises the solid foundation of the first policy.

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. In line with international developments and the Government’s social inclusion agenda, this policy emphasises prevention, addressing health inequalities and looking at the social determinants of those inequalities.

It takes as its starting point the first, 1989, women’s health policy. The consultations, submissions and reviews of current literature point clearly to the relevance of much of the original policy.

The issues, challenges, approaches and actions outlined 22 years ago have changed in their complexion, and are experienced and understood differently today. The 2010 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.

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 disease and control of risk factors.
2. Mental health and wellbeing.
3. Sexual and reproductive health.
4. Healthy ageing.

The policy also examines longer-term strategies for addressing the social determinants of health through the establishment of five policy goals. These 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

Policy overview

During 2009 and 2010, the Department of Health and Ageing coordinated the development of the National Women’s Health Policy 2010. The policy has its basis in discussions and submissions from women right across Australia who joined the consultation process representing themselves, their families, communities, businesses or organisations. Input was collected from the National Women’s Health Policy Roundtable, written submissions and public consultations and distilled to show what women currently see as the most important issues in their health and wellbeing.

These issues have been used to inform the goals and action areas of the National Women’s Health Policy 2010. The policy also uses recent evidence on women’s health to support the strategies and, in line with the consultations, pays particular attention to the needs of marginalised groups of women.

The document is structured to reflect the equal priorities of:

1. 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
2. aiming to address health inequities through broader reforms addressing the social determinants of health.

Chapter One provides details on the development of the National Women’s Health Policy 2010, including the discussion papers and forums that made up the background to the policy and details of the submissions that were made as part of the consultation process.

Chapter Two provides an overview of women’s health as well as details of specific health issues and risk factors that will form the biggest challenge to the ongoing health and wellbeing of Australian women over the next 20 years. These health priorities have been identified through a strong evidence base of current research, including the Australian Longitudinal Study of Women’s Health, as well as from the qualitative research undertaken as part of the consultation process for the development of the policy. The health priority areas include prevention of chronic disease, control of risk factors, mental health, sexual and reproductive health and ageing. Diseases and conditions such as (among others) heart disease, diabetes, cancer, respiratory disease, chlamydia, depression and dementia are featured, as well as risk factors such as obesity, smoking, binge drinking and levels of physical exercise.

Chapter Three examines the priority health challenges identified in Chapter Two in terms of the health impacts of the issue in general, across the lifespan and the impact on women in marginalised groups. Underlying issues of gender and other social determinants of health impacting on these key health challenges are discussed.

Chapter Four provides the action areas to address the priority health challenges facing Australian women and policy makers over the next 20 years. Actions are drawn from existing Government responses and new actions are proposed.

Chapter Five provides an exploration of the social determinants underpinning the health of Australian women today.

Chapter Six identifies five broad goals for addressing inequality, including existing government initiatives and areas for further development.

The Appendices provide a reference list and details of organisations and individuals who made submissions to the policy.