06 September 2023
MINISTERIAL STATEMENTS - Women's Health Week 2023
I rise today to speak about Women's Health Week and the importance of equal access to safe, effective, affordable and appropriate healthcare services and support for Australian women and girls. The Albanese Labor government has made women's health a priority and is working to break down the barriers to women accessing the quality care they need and deserve. We are ensuring that Australian women and girls have the equitable access they deserve to health care and we are addressing the significant biases that exist in health care on the basis of gender. This is a priority for our government.
But, first, I'd like to talk about a girl of 14 from country Victoria who, back in early 1985, was experiencing significant pain on the right side of her lower abdomen. She was sent to the local hospital with suspected appendicitis. Upon examination under general anaesthetic, the male GP who was operating discovered the appendix wasn't really that inflamed, so he went looking further and found instead a large, egg-sized dermoid cyst on her right ovary. Without pausing the operation or consulting the girl's mother, who was waiting anxiously in the hospital waiting room, the GP made the decision to remove the cyst, as well as the girl's whole ovary. When the girl awoke, groggily thinking she'd just had her appendix removed, she was being told, at the age of 14, 'Don't worry, you'll still be able to have kids of your own.' That girl was me.
I then went on to experience more dermoid cysts on my left—and remaining—ovary from the age of 16 to 20 and was told the pill was the only option to keep these types of ovarian cysts from forming. I had more operations at the age of 20 to remove them and, when I went off the pill one time and they'd begun forming again, I was told to just stay on the pill if I ever wanted to have kids of my own. I did that until the age of 25, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer and was told by my oncologist at the time that the pill could be dangerous and that I needed to cease taking it if I wanted to avoid a recurrence of breast cancer.
I was then, at the age of 25, put in the situation of choosing a possible cancer recurrence over one day having kids of my own. I didn't even know at that point if I wanted to have kids. It was all too much to handle. I went off the pill, as I wanted to avoid having a recurrence at all costs. Of course, this meant the dermoid cysts returned, and then my remaining ovary was at risk of dying. I had an operation to remove a dermoid cyst that had formed within the centre of the ovary and was lucky enough to have a fantastic, qualified gynaecologist who was able to conserve enough ovarian tissue for me to be able to conceive my son in late 2000 and then my daughter in late 2003. Without this man's expertise I might not have my two beautiful kids, who are now 22 and 19 years old—I'm sorry, but I get a bit emotional.
Because that remaining ovary were so tiny, I then started having hot flushes at 37 years of age. I knew what this was and had been half expecting it. I told my GP, but I was fobbed off—almost laughed at, in fact. I got a gynaecologist's appointment, but he also fobbed me off when I asked for a menopause test. He told me I was way too young, even though he had my complete medical history before him. I was so infuriated by this. Finally, he granted me a blood test to see if I was going through premature menopause, almost to shut me up, I felt. It came back positive; I knew it would. He couldn't even give me the results himself, preferring to get his receptionist to give them to me over the phone—in a very chirpy matter, no less. I was pretty upset, to say the least.
In my view, I believe the male GP from the country hospital should never have acted in the way he did in removing my right ovary without proper consultation first. It should never have happened like that to a 14-year-old girl. There was no warning—nothing. I should have been referred to a qualified gynaecologist at the very least to see if my ovary could've been saved. That's my personal story.
Ged Kearney has established the National Women's Health Advisory Council, consisting of leading Australian experts in women's health to advise on the barriers facing women and girls in the health system and how the government can address them. I'm very passionate about this. The council is focusing on four key areas: research; safety; access, care and outcomes; and empowerment. Ged Kearney and the council are undertaking a widespread consultation across the country and they're hearing that every woman, like myself, has a story, but nobody has ever asked them to tell it. The bias against women in the health system is deeply embedded. The reality is that women have been dismissed and ignored as far back as we have recorded, their ailments chalked up to hysteria, hormones or just women's weakness. The consequences of this bias are dire—misdiagnosis, under or over prescribing—and the problem bleeds into a lack of medical research and a lack of an evidence base for how conditions affect women. For example, women were excluded from clinical trials until the 1990s. A perfect example of this is how women make up 70 per cent of chronic pain condition patients, however 80 per cent of pain medications have only been tested on men.
We know that often these experiences in the health system can be sensitive and difficult to share—yes, they are—so being able to share their experiences in their own language can be really helpful for people. All components of the consultation are available in 17 languages.
I urge anyone who has faced or witnessed gender bias in the health system to tell us about it. You can find the council's survey by visiting health.gov.au and searching 'women's council'. We can't fix what we don't know, and an Australia-first public consultation is an important step towards understanding the issue and how best to address it.
Endometriosis and pelvic pain—endometriosis affects at least one in nine Australian women and can have an extensive devastating impact on the daily lives of those with the condition. Sufferers wait on average seven years before diagnosis. New research shows that one in two Australian women experience pelvic pain and half of those women do not discuss their symptoms with a doctor despite significant impacts on work or study. I'm experiencing pelvic pain right now because of the many operations I've had over the years. I'm experiencing pain right now and have for years because of adhesions, and I can't get anyone to help me with that pain, so I know about this from personal experience.
The impact of pelvic pain is felt beyond individuals as it is estimated to cost the Australian economy almost $10 billion a year. We, as a government, have committed a $53 million package to support endometriosis and pelvic pain management. A key component of this commitment was establishing 22 specialised endometriosis and pelvic pain clinics across Australia, providing multidisciplinary care with a focus on reducing diagnostic delay and promoting early access to intervention, care and treatment options for endometriosis and pelvic pain.
Miscarriage—early pregnancy loss, or miscarriage, is the most common pregnancy complication and can be a devastating and traumatic experience for parents, their families and support people. It can have significant personal, social and sometimes financial consequences. The government has provided $5.1 million over four years from 2022-23 to deliver high-quality evidence-based bereavement care for women and families from higher risk population groups who experience stillbirth or miscarriage, including First Nations people, culturally and linguistically diverse families, refugee and migrated communities, women and families living in rural and remote areas and women younger than 20 years.
IVF—the Albanese government is committed to supporting Australians to access a wide range of assisted reproductive technology treatments, including IVF, by providing rebates for services listed on the Medicare Benefits Schedule and subsidising medications available through the PBS.
I could talk about this from a personal perspective until the cows come home, but I'm running out of time. The measures that the Albanese government are taking to address these issues are very welcome to people like me and to families whose members have experienced endometriosis. I can't speak more highly of them.
The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Dr Ananda-Rajah ): That was a very powerful speech. Thank you.
ParlInfo - Federation Chamber : MINISTERIAL STATEMENTS : Women's Health Week (aph.gov.au)