Radio interview with Assistant Minister Kearney on ABC Radio Sydney - 7 March 2024

Read the transcript from Assistant Minister Kearney's interview on women's health and the end gender bias survey.

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

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RICHARD GLOVER, ABC RADIO SYDNEY: Well, have you ever felt as though your health concern hasn't been taken seriously by a GP? Perhaps because you're a woman it's put down to overreacting or a bad period or just an illness. Endo is one example which the medical system doesn't really seem to know how to deal with. It's the type of experience many women in Australia have reported in a new survey of 3000 women - health professionals, and stakeholder groups - perhaps not surprisingly, this happened most around sexual and reproductive health.
 
Ged Kearney, a nurse earlier in her career, is now the Assistant Health Minister in Canberra, and she's been hearing from women around the country about their experiences in healthcare. She's here now, but as I say, invitation for you to tell a story, too. If you feel that the healthcare you've got has been influenced by your gender, by being a woman, 1300-222-702. And Ged Kearney is with us. Good afternoon, Minister.

GED KEARNEY, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: Hello. Thank you for having me on, Richard.
 
GLOVER: You talked today about a 70-year-old woman who approached you in a bar to tell her story. Can you tell us about that?
 
KEARNEY: Yes. I'm kind of sorry I gave where we were at the time, but, yes, I was-
 
GLOVER: Sorry. You were in church.
 
KEARNEY: It’s become part of the story now. But no, yes, I was just out and about and women know that I have been looking into this area of gender bias in the health system. And a woman approached me and said that she was a 70-year-old woman and wanted to tell me her experience of her GP. She went to her GP to explain that she was having severe abdominal pain during sex, when she was having sexual intercourse, and this young male doctor said to her: well, what do you expect? You're 70 years old, like you're having sex at 70. And said, you know, of course it's going to be painful, and was very dismissive of her. And she said she felt so humiliated and upset and belittled that she just left and went home. And lo and behold, three days later, she was admitted to hospital with a ruptured appendix.
 
And that is just one really extraordinary story of how women feel that the system lets them down and that they are often not heard and dismissed because of stereotypes and gender biases in the health system. There's a lot of examples I can give you, but that was a stark one, I think.
 
GLOVER: I mean, one of the sort of general categories, I suppose, is you're being too emotional or that terrible gendered word: you're being hysterical.
 
KEARNEY: Hysterical. It's not that long ago, and I'm not sure how long but probably well and truly in our lifetime that the diagnosis of hysteria was removed from the official list of diagnostics. Yes, women are often told, you know, it's in your head or you're just over anxious. This is a woman's lot, suck it up. You know, you get periods, you're going to get pain. We know that a lot of the conditions are ones like endometriosis that are absolutely excruciating, that are debilitating, and that stop women from enjoying that their lives in the best way they possibly can.
 
GLOVER: Well, endometriosis is a great example, isn't it, whereby so many women have told the story of having endo and going to doctor after doctor after doctor and being told it's in their mind or there's nothing that can be done.
 
KEARNEY: Even worse than that, they're accused of drug shopping because, you know, every month they will present to their doctor or to the emergency department for pain relief. Yes, that's right, they're accused of faking it. It's really terrible. But one thing I think that we can give people hope is the story of endometriosis. Because you know about it, and I think more and more people are now becoming aware that it is a bona fide condition. And I'm very pleased to say that the Labor Government has invested nearly $60 million to a suite of measures to support women with endometriosis.
 
So there are ways we can deal with this. Next week, I've convened a National Women's Health Summit. We've got around 150 people coming together, to - policy makers, researchers, women with lived experience - and we're really going to discuss this issue. We've got more outcomes from the gender bias survey that you mentioned in your introduction, the End Gender Bias survey. We’ll really dig down into that data and see what we can do to make the system better for women.
 
GLOVER: Well, some of the bias is really life threatening. We talked to a researcher maybe three weeks ago who'd looked at heart attacks and the way that, at every stage of the process, the men get more treatment than the women.
 
KEARNEY: Oh, yes. So, there is some research that shows that you're twice as likely to die of a heart attack if you are a woman. And this is really because it's just how the system is developed. You know, traditionally doctors were men. They designed the system for men. Clinical guidelines and diagnostic tools were designed around men. In fact, I've heard it said that the system really is designed for a 50-year-old white man from Pennsylvania. And so, traditionally, it has been men that have worked in the system, that designed the system. And so, when you get symptomology like for heart attack, it's how men feel about it. Women feel different. Women might present with abdominal pain or a feeling of anxiety or generalised chest pain right across their chest and unfortunately that means that you're less likely to be admitted to ICU and you're more likely to die. But that there are lots of examples of that right across the whole spectrum of healthcare that I could give you but that is one stark one, yes.
 
GLOVER: I love the fact that we are slowly getting parliamentarians with different experiences, that they're not all, you know, farmers and lawyers or union officials. I talked yesterday to Jacqui Lambie, whose experience of the Royal Commission into Veteran Suicide is informed by her own period at the ADF. I wonder how much your period as a nurse is affecting your understanding of this as you try to create change?
 
KEARNEY: Well, I would like to think that it really has informed my experience. I personally, and a lot of women will relate to this, had a very poor experience with menopause. Awful, awful experience. And there was so few remedies and treatments for me. There was very little help that I could get. Nobody was terribly interested in what I was experiencing through menopause and I nearly quit my job. I nearly gave up because it was so bad. I got through it. But a lot of women do just get through it and just get through it - I mean, you know, by the skin of their teeth and that shouldn't be the way. So yes, my experience and looking after women who have been unwell in the system and haven't been treated well in the system has helped.
 
But also, I have to say we have the first government ever that has more than 50 per cent women in the government, and this is the first time in Australia's history. And I'm really proud that I'm so supported in this venture to help women in the health system. The Minister, Mark Butler, has been publicly supporting me; the Finance Minister, who, of course, is a woman. The Prime Minister is backing this. So, this is a government that really cares about women.
 
GLOVER: Now, I know you said you've got the conference next week and hopefully they’ll produce some ideas. But how do we achieve change? You can't reach into every GP, surgery. You can't reach into every hospital. So how do you get people to actually change the way they're treating their female patients?
 
KEARNEY: Well, I think, first of all, you raise awareness, which is what you're doing. So thank you for having me on. You raise awareness and let people right across the spectrum understand that there's an issue. And then you work with the people who can help make change. So I've got a National Women's Health Advisory Council that has the medical colleges on it, so the AMA, the RACGP, the College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, who are right behind this and want to help. You talk to people with lived experience, you work with communities and you really try to make change from the ground up and from the top down. So we're going to change, hopefully change things like clinical guidelines; make sure that when we are drafting care pathways that they acknowledge there's difference between the genders, the sexes. So I think it's multifaceted, but we're onto it.
 
GLOVER: Good luck for next week and thanks for talking to us.
 
KEARNEY: No problem. Thanks for having me on.
 
GLOVER: Yeah. Ged Kearney, the Assistant Health Minister. And this survey of 3000 women, health professionals, and stakeholder groups, which, yeah, reveals the idea that lots feel demeaned and ignored when they go to- when they meet the Australian health system whether at hospital or through their GP.
 

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