National women’s health survey findings ‘sobering’

Anastasia Tsirtsakis

18/12/2020 2:55:52 PM

The results show a high prevalence of anxiety, intimate partner violence, and lack of support after miscarriage and stillbirth.

Woman looking distressed.
Women aged 25-44 were less likely to report having time to attend health check appointments during the pandemic, coping with longer working hours in the job and at home.

‘Sobering and powerful.’
That is how Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt described the results of Jean Hailes’ annual National Women’s Health Survey, revealing how women managed their health and wellbeing over the past 12 months.
Launched by the Minister this month, the findings revealed that one in three (33.2%) women reported feeling anxious and one in four (28.7%) had symptoms of depression, with a higher prevalence among those aged 18–24 (55.2% and 41.9% respectively).
Women aged 25–44 also reported being busier than before COVID-19 measures were imposed, having to cope with longer working hours both in their jobs and at home, as well as managing remote learning for children.
Dr Elizabeth Farrell AM, a gynaecologist and Medical Director of Jean Hailes for Women’s Health, told newsGP the findings give insight into the challenges many women face around managing life.
‘Most of us who’ve been born in this country, have never had to go through major wars or famines, and so we have lived a fairly reasonable life, and I think that [COVID] has highlighted the precarious aspect of living, even in a society that overall lives well,’ she said.
‘I think people have become very anxious about living, have become very anxious about problem solving, and it shows that even though for most people you can afford a full belly, there are still the issues of anxiety and depression, and just maintaining and managing life.’
Intimate partner violence also emerged as a significant issue, with one in four (23.9%) women experiencing some form, particularly emotional abuse (19.5%) and controlling behaviours (11.1%), particularly among those with a disability, LGBTIQ women, and those financially impacted by COVID-19.
Professor Jane Fisher, Director of Global and Women’s Health at Monash University, said the data is ‘alarmingly high’.
‘Stereotypically we think that all violence is the physical act, whereas the most common forms of violence experienced by women are emotional abuse and controlling behaviours,’ she said.
‘These are very harmful things to experience in intimate relationships and, as the survey has shown, these behaviours are much more common than has been generally believed.’
Among women who had tried to get pregnant, almost one in four (23.4%) reported infertility, of whom one-third (36.8%) had discussed the issue with their GP, 58.7% saw a gynaecologist or fertility specialist, and 21.7% did not seek medical help, especially those living in rural and remote areas and LGBTIQ women.
When it came to maternal health, almost three in five (60%) who had experienced a miscarriage or stillbirth said they did not receive enough information and support, highest among women in rural and remote areas (63.9%) and those with a disability (69.7%).
Jackie Mead, co-CEO of Red Nose, said she was not surprised by the numbers.
‘Shock is the first response from women who have just heard that their baby has died, and they have little capacity to take in information about possible support,’ she said. ‘There needs to be follow up.
‘The system has to include a check on emotional, as well as physical, wellbeing weeks later.’
One-third (33.6%) reported that their health was worse than before COVID-19, particularly among women aged 25–44, those with a disability and LGBTIQ women.
More than 50% said the pandemic had impacted their ability to access healthcare services, with one in four (24.1%) reporting that they could not get an appointment when they needed one, particularly the case for women with a disability (32.7%) and those in rural and remote areas (31.1%).
Cost of healthcare was a barrier for almost one in five, who said they could not afford to see a health professional when they needed it, with women with disabilities (39.1%) and LGBTIQ women (24.1%) particularly disadvantaged.
Meanwhile 31.7% of women aged 25–44 reported not having enough time to attend health check appointments.
For young women aged 18–24, one in four (27.6%) did not know where to go to access health services, and 13.3% did not know where to go to find reliable health information, which Dr Farrell found ‘quite unusual’.
‘We think we’re giving a good service. But, in fact, when you hear that you think “my gosh”,’ she said.
The top three topics that women wanted more information about were anxiety, weight management, and healthy eating/nutrition (30.9%). Women aged 45–64 years were more interested in menopause (43.5%), women aged 65 and over in bone health and osteoporosis, and those aged 75 and over also wanted information on bladder health, dementia, and incontinence.
Now in its sixth year, 9361 women responded to the survey, analysed and weighted by researchers led by Professor Gita Mishra, Head of the Epidemiology and Biostatics Division at the University of Queensland.
Dr Farrell says it is important for GPs to be aware of the findings in their day-to-day practice.
‘We have to be very aware in practice that it’s not just always the physical presentation that we need to be looking at, and that women may present with physical symptoms, but they may be representative of more,’ she said.
‘It may be representative of their mental health or their home circumstances, how they’re managing with life, how they deal with life – all of those things.
‘[It’s about] being aware that there could be another story to the woman’s presentation.’
Dr Farrell believes that mental health ‘needs a lot more support’, and that includes the role of GPs.
‘Even though there’s the mental health care program in general practice, referral to a psychologist doesn’t necessarily mean that the patient’s going to be bulk-billed, and they could be significantly out of pocket, [and] publicly, the waiting lists are horrendous,’ she said.
‘[T]hat’s an area where there could be improvement in general practice training, so that more GPs are trained to work in the mental health area, to counsel, as well as providing medication for patients.
‘But, once again, this is an area where you need time – you can’t talk about mental health in five minutes, [and at present] there’s neither the time nor the funding.’
Minister Hunt said the findings will help the Federal Government to ‘frame the next steps in our long-term National Women’s Health Strategy to 2030’.
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