Radio interview with Assistant Minister Kearney on ABC Radio National – 8 March 2024

Read the transcript from Assistant Minister Kearney's radio interview on the National Women's Health Summit, and the End Gender Bias Survey.

The Hon Ged Kearney MP
Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care

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RACHEL MEALEY, RADIO NATIONAL: When you go to the doctor, how often do you feel like you're being listened to? And are your concerns taken seriously? If you're a woman, chances are that's not always the case. Two in three women say they've experienced bias and discrimination in healthcare, particularly when it comes to pain. Next week, the Government will examine this and other issues at the very first National Women's Health Summit. Ged Kearney is the Federal Assistant Health Minister. Thanks for your time.

MEALEY: I'm a bit shocked to read this, but two and three women experiencing bias or discrimination is pretty alarming. What sort of bias are we talking about?
KEARNEY: It is alarming. Look, when I first became the Assistant Minister for Health I started hearing from a range of women - both health professionals, I've got to say, and women who use the system - that they felt the system was not really listening to them. That doctors dismissed their symptoms. That when they did present with things like pelvic pain, that they were told to just suck it up, that's a woman's lot, you know, you get periods, that's- you know, women are supposed to be in pain, basically. And of course, we know that simply isn't true.
There are lots of reasons that women would have, well, for example, pelvic pain. We know endometriosis is under the spotlight at the moment and that's a classic example where women wait, on average, nine years to get diagnosed. They're accused of awful things, Rachel, like drug shopping. They- you know, because they come back every month when they have their period in excruciating pain, looking for pain relief. Dare I say it, that awful word, you know, hysterical, is still being bantered about. And it's not that long ago, I might add, that it was removed as an official diagnosis, by the way. Hard to believe.
MEALEY: .... I just feel like- I feel like we heard these stories from our mothers, and we vowed that it would change.
KEARNEY: We did vow it would change, but unfortunately the system really hasn't changed. And look, I don't mean that people are doing this on purpose. I think that this has just been embedded in the system, as you said in your introduction, that has been for hundreds of years, developed by men pretty much for men, unfortunately. But there are some changes coming and I'm pleased to say that I'm absolutely committed to see more change ahead.
MEALEY: Before we get to the changes, I want to know more about this discrimination. Does it actually flow through to the medical care that women receive and I guess the outcomes that women experience in the medical system?
KEARNEY: Definitely. There's a lot of research now that is starting to look into this. One very common one that your listeners might have heard of is that if you are a woman you are, I'm pretty sure, it's twice as likely to die of a heart attack. Now, this is because all of the guidelines and the symptoms and diagnostic tools tell people to look out for crushing chest pain, pain down the left arm or in the left jaw, that would be something we'd all be familiar with. But very few women actually present with those symptoms when they're having a heart attack so they're dismissed. You know, you're not having a heart attack. You're a bit anxious, you've got a bit of dyspepsia, you know, might be given some Mylanta or something. And unfortunately, women die from heart attacks at a much higher rate than men. Now, that is statistically proven now.
MEALEY: Wow. The number of GPs who are women has been rising over the past few years. I think it's now above 50 per cent. Is that the solution here? Is that changing anything with time?
KEARNEY: I think it's a good thing. One of the things that we do know, and it's been in the papers very recently, is that women GPs- there is a gender pay gap for women GPs. Now, this is because they tend to spend a lot longer with women patients who have complex conditions that are hard to diagnose. Often, the male doctors send them down the corridor to say, oh, you know, you've got women's problems, you can go down and see Dr Cathy. So poor old Dr Cathy takes on all the long consults and… So, yes, I think it is a good thing, but we need systemic change. We need to make sure that the guidelines and the diagnostic tools that they’re using are up to date and reflect women's health problems.
MEALEY: It's 4.11 on RN Drive. Ged Kearney is the Federal Assistant Health Minister, and she's with me discussing the way women are treated in the health sector. Now, you're convening the National Women's Health Summit. What will this do to address the problem?
KEARNEY: That's a good question. There are lots of things already happening that I just want to point out to your listeners. The Albanese Labor Government, for example, has invested $58 million in specific endometriosis- a suite of things that will help women with endometriosis. So there's a lot of recognition. A lot of the colleges are now working to revamp things around, for example, that issue I raised about women having heart attacks. So, there are good things happening. And I've convened a Women's Health Council to advise me on this. We did an End Gender Bias survey where nearly 3000 women responded from all across the country in different languages - rural, regional, urban women - and this is where we got that two in three women told us about discrimination.
So, we're coming together. We've got health professionals, people with lived experience, advocates. Just we're going to have a look at it and just see where do we start? What is the short and medium and long term things that we can do to make things better for women? I think I've got the right people there. I'm pretty sure I have. So I'm hoping to be able to do some stuff pretty soon.
MEALEY: And how do we know, Ged Kearney, that it is discrimination based on gender? Because, you know, doctors are busy people. They are people, but they may just be overlooking all of us.
KEARNEY: It's a good point. And of course, I should add that there are intersectionality’s here. If you are a woman of colour or you don't speak English or some of the issues that women face in their lives are hard to talk about. In some cultures, there might be barriers. It's all right for me to go on national radio and talk about heavy periods, but that might be challenging for some people. So, there are lots of intersectionality’s there that I want to acknowledge.
Well, how do we know? Because as I said, there is a growing level of research that is pointing these things out. For example, it's not that long ago that clinical trials for drugs were only done on men, they weren't done on women. So we just assumed that how they affect men, it was exactly the same for women. So, you know, and we know that that can't be. We know that alcohol affects women differently, for example. So, a lot of women were being overmedicated and this is coming out in research now. So we are getting a body of research to tell us that this is not just in our- you know, we're not just being- dreaming about this; this is actually an issue.
MEALEY: So I guess I need to ask you on this International Women's Day: are you hopeful or is this just an intractable problem of our health system?
KEARNEY: No, I don't think it is an intractable problem at all. As I said, we're starting to raise awareness about these things. The medical colleges have been fantastic. The nursing colleges, the allied health professionals are all on board. Everybody has recognised this as a problem. They're all going to be at the summit and we're really going to put our heads together and nut this out. There have- as I said, there already have been some great advancements, but we've got a long way to go. I've just got to work out where to start and how are we going to make this better for women, the health system better for women.
MEALEY: Ged Kearney, the women of Australia will be watching.
KEARNEY: Oh, thank you. I hope they are and I hope to give them something very soon. As I said, we've already started though, Rachel. There are some good things happening.
MEALEY: Thanks very much for joining me this afternoon.
KEARNEY: No worries. Thanks for having me.
MEALEY: That's Ged Kearney. She's the Federal Assistant Health Minister, joining me there.


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