Television interview with Assistant Minister Kearney, ABC News Afternoon Briefing - 14 March 2024

Read the transcript of Assistant Minister Kearney's interview with Greg Jennett on the National Women's Health Summit; End Gender Bias survey; UNRWA funding.

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

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GREG JENNETT, ABC NEWS: Okay, now, even though it's not a sitting week, a summit is underway here within Parliament House dealing with women's health today. Assistant Health Minister Ged Kearney is hosting it, and in between sessions, we caught up with her on that and some fallout from the Israel-Gaza war that affects people in her Melbourne electorate.
Ged Kearney, welcome back to the program as always. Now, you happen to be in Canberra right now because you're hosting the National Women's Health Summit. What commitments are you giving to participants that their discussions will translate into real policy changes by this government?

GED KEARNEY, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: Well, this is an issue that I personally have taken on as a bit of a mission. From the very first minute that I was appointed Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care, women have been telling me their stories of the health system, and it made me do a bit of a deep dive into the research, to talk to professionals and other people in the health system about this, and it became apparent to me that there is a gender bias in the health system, particularly when it comes to sexual reproductive health care, for women's pain, but also more generally to those issues that affect women. I’ve got a lot of anecdotes. I could tell you a lot of anecdotes that would show that issue.
JENNETT: We'll come back to further questions about what commitments might come from a summit, because let's face it, we've all attended lots of summits where there isn't always a lot of follow-through. So, I'll come back on that
KEARNEY: Sure. Sure. Okay.
JENNETT: But just as background for viewers who aren't aware, in the lead-up to this Summit, a survey has been run of 2500 patients and it did find what you state anecdotally: gender bias. In what ways?
KEARNEY: Well, two out of three women said that they experienced gender bias in the health system and even I was a little bit shocked about that. It's extraordinary. If you have what we call an intersectionality, if you are a woman with a disability or you're in the LGBTQIA+ community, then 80 per cent of respondents said that they experienced some sort of bias, gender bias in the health system. This is wide and varied. A lot of it happened in primary health care, so with GPs, and of course in our public hospital system.
Some examples. We all know the example of endometriosis. It takes nine years on average, nine years, to get diagnosed. Women present with pelvic pain every month. It is excruciating, debilitating condition. And yet, they tell us that they're not believed. They're dismissed. They're accused of drug shopping, doctor hopping, all sorts of terrible things, or that they're being hysterical. All of those things.
JENNETT: Is this true regardless of the gender of the doctor they are consulting?
KEARNEY: That's a good question. I think having more women doctors has certainly helped that situation. However, sometimes it means that women GPs, for example, see more of these complex patients. They spend a lot more time with them. And we're hearing that there is a gender pay gap for GPs because of that.
KEARNEY: But really the problem, Greg, is the system itself. There is an inbuilt gender bias. So, guidelines that doctor used, the diagnostic tools that they use, the symptomology, is all designed for, dare I say, a 50-year-old white man.
JENNETT: Oh, they're terrible, yeah.
KEARNEY: They're not terrible, but that's just who the system is designed for.
JENNETT: They’re set in their ways.
KEARNEY: And so when I'm a woman and I present with something that doesn't fit that, then it's very difficult for a doctor or a health professional in the system to work with the tools that they have. So, we need to change those tools. We need to change attitudes and culture. A lot of it is cultural. And we need to empower women to be able to advocate for themselves as well. In many ways, they need to have a voice. They need to have choice.
JENNETT: And so how does all of that come together at the Summit? What do you tangibly believe will come out of it that addresses all of these biases?
KEARNEY: Well, the first thing is that we're talking about it.
KEARNEY: I think that's great. We're raising awareness. The medical professions, the nursing and midwifery professions, allied health professionals are all there today. They all admit, yes, we have a problem. Great start. And so then, what will come from the Summit? I've established, as you and I have talked about before, a National Women's Health Advisory Council who are working on these issues. Everything that we're learning today, and I've learned a few new things, will lead into, feed into the National Women's Health Advisory Council and our deliberations will deal with them from there. We're already seeing some great changes already, you know, in huge investment, millions of dollars’ investment in endometriosis care. We are going to be one of the first countries in the world to eliminate cervical cancer. Already, there have been guideline changes. You know, those diagnostic tools I described before? Some of them are already changing because, for example, women present with different symptoms when they're having a heart attack. Normally, the diagnostic tool describes what a man goes through. We know women have completely different experiences. So, guidelines are being changed as we speak. Things like that are happening.
JENNETT: Can I just move on to some other issues of the day? And I'm sure you're familiar with them, particularly where you come from in Melbourne as an MP, Ged Kearney. Reports carried by the ABC and other news organisations about some Palestinians who've managed to leave Gaza have had their pre-approved Australian visas cancelled en route to this country via a third nation. Now, the Greens are calling for these to be reinstated. Do you have any understanding about how this rather unusual set of circumstances, that is cancellation, have come about?
KEARNEY: It's very difficult for me to comment on the individual cases and I can't do that, as you could imagine, Greg. But I can acknowledge that this must be incredibly distressing for many Australians who have families in Palestine. I myself, in my electorate, get a lot of presentations. A lot of people are coming to me saying how distressing the situation is, and I can't imagine the stress that this is putting on a lot of Australians who have family in Gaza and in Palestine.
JENNETT: Do those representations include people who have family in Gaza or in a third country, perhaps, who have pre-approved visas but frustratingly can't seem to make it to Australia?
KEARNEY: I can't say that I've actually had that, but I have had people come to us for help with their family, and we have been successful in quite a few family members coming to Australia recently, which is a great relief to the people in my electorate and the people that we're helping.
JENNETT: All right. On the root cause of the problem there, great suffering as a result of the war in Gaza. There are many people in the ALP, including in the Cabinet, calling for the Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA, for its funding to be restored by Australia as soon as possible. Do you have any feeling about when that will be possible?
KEARNEY: I do get a lot of people coming to me saying that they were distressed that the funding was ceased and advocating for that to be reinstated. And, in my role as an advocate for my constituency, I do believe that the funding should be reinstated. UNRWA is a very important aid organisation in the area. They have been there a long time. They are well embedded on the ground and understand the situation very well. And it is very distressing for everybody seeing what's happening in Gaza right now.
JENNETT: Just to clarify, in your view, reinstate the funding, you say, unconditionally?
KEARNEY: I think we should reinstate the funding as soon as possible. I think UNWRA are an important organisation. There's nobody else that can do the work that they do in the area. I think, generally speaking, we need to make sure that aid is going into the country. That needs to be a priority. The images, I'm sure you will agree, that we are seeing of people starving, of hospitals not being able to provide care, women giving birth in terrible situations. The aid situation is dire and we need to make sure that the aid is getting into Gaza as soon as possible.
JENNETT: As soon as possible. And just again, to try and clarify, should that be conditional on the results of an investigation into any roles played by UNRWA staff, which, of course, was the allegation behind the pause? Do you think it's reached- I don't want to put words in your mouth, but do you think it's reached - a point where it should just be resumed anyway?
KEARNEY: We've seen some of our very close partners resume funding to UNRWA - and others haven't. I understand that, and I do understand the complexities around reinstating that funding and the investigations that are ongoing. But I would hope that they can be overcome and that funding can be restored very, very soon.
JENNETT: All right. Hear you loud and clear on that. Ged Kearney, for that and the National Women's Health Summit, good to catch up again. Thanks for joining us.
KEARNEY: Thanks, Greg.

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