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The Health Wrap: women’s health, community pharmacy deal and the political power of anti-vaxxers

Writing from the Colorado Rockies, Adjunct Associate Professor Lesley Russell finds some solace in the local landscape’s beauty amid bleak news of United States politics.

Her latest column investigates the political power of anti-vaxxers in the US, the political power of pharmacy owners in Australia – and how the political and social determinants of health undermine women’s health and wellbeing, in Australia and globally.

The quotable?

Women make up half of our population but women’s health research has been understudied and underfunded.

That’s why I’m signing an Executive Order to ensure women’s health is prioritised across the federal research portfolio and budget.”


Lesley Russell writes:

Greetings from Keystone in the Colorado Rockies where our #skibumsojourn continues. We are out skiing or snowshoeing nearly every day, and in between we are getting some work done.

The political mood here is very sober – often dark – with very few Americans enthusiastic about a Biden-Trump political rematch and many deeply worried about Trump’s worsening demeanour and language and the threats of violence and revenge that now seem part of every rally he gives.

We are so grateful for the inner peace the local landscape brings.

This photo is of the Snake River which runs by the Keystone ski fields (you can just see the lower slopes of several ski runs in the background). It makes a lake in front of our apartment where in winter you can skate and play ice hockey.

The surrounding, environmentally protected wetlands are used by beavers, moose, elk and hares (and this year there are stories about a lurking pair of mountain lions, although we are yet to see them). There’s fly fishing in the summer and some lovely, easy hiking paths.

The area around Keystone was originally used by the Ute and Arapaho Native American tribes during summer but was overtaken by miners in search of precious metals in the 1860s.


Women’s health, wellbeing and equity

There’s lots of news about actions on women’s health and wellbeing and efforts to address equity and discrimination to kick off this edition of The Health Wrap.

Many of the new announcements were timed to coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8.

https://twitter.com/SenKatyG/status/1633198941092327424?s=20

Australian announcements

First, the Albanese Government’s 2024 National Women’s Health Summit, hosted by Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care, Ged Kearney. This was held in Parliament House, Canberra on 14 March. The program for the day is here.

This conference was an important follow-on from work in this space recently done in Victoria that I reported on in The Health Wrap, 12 February, 2024.

As part of the Summit, Kearney launched the summary report of the #EndGenderBias survey, which was conducted by the National Women’s Health Advisory Council.

This Australian-first survey had more than 2,800 responses in which women, healthcare professionals and peak stakeholder groups shared their experiences or understanding of gender bias in the health system.

Two-thirds of women reported they experienced healthcare-related gender bias or discrimination themselves and almost 80 percent of caregivers – mostly mothers advocating on behalf of their children – reported similar experiences.

Consistent themes included women feeling dismissed and disbelieved, being stereotyped as ‘hysterical’ and a ‘drama queen’, and women’s symptoms being readily attributed to other causes such as menstruation, lifestyle factors or even ‘faking it’. This was particularly evident when women’s symptoms related to pain.

More than 80 percent of both women with a disability and LGBTIQA+ survey respondents reported discrimination and bias compared to around 67 percent of other women.

You can read more in this article in The Guardian.

The transcript of the media conference that preceded the Summit is here. It talks encouragingly about what is hoped to be achieved, but there is little publicly available about what goals and actions were agreed at the Summit.

Also this month the Albanese Government has released a new strategy, Working for Women: A Strategy for Gender Equality, along with the latest Status of Women Report Card.

While the Report Card highlights some good news – exemplified by the fact that Australia’s international ranking for gender equality has improved from 43rd in 2023 to 26th in 2024 – there is also much room for improvement.

For example: mothers who change from partnered to single mother households experience a 20 percent decline in household income; one in five women have experiences sexual violence since the age of 15; and over half of women experiencing menopause symptoms reported negative impacts on their mental and emotional wellbeing.

The Strategy has these priority areas:

  • Gender-based violence
  • Unpaid and paid care
  • Economic equality and security
  • Health
  • Leadership, representation and decision-making.

The fairly impressive list of what’s underway to address these priorities is here.

See commentary from Professor Susan Harris Rimmer – Australia finally has a strategy for gender equality. Is it any good? – in The Mandarin.

Minister for Women Katy Gallagher has highlighted that the public service will have to step up efforts for gender equality. The Strategy asks for department-level reporting on actions being taken to reduce inequality in the federal workplace. But clear guidelines and processes about how this will happen have yet to be developed.

One of the biggest economic equity barriers facing Australian women, resulting in many who were once middle-class spending their old age living in poverty, is the fact that they have less superannuation. Generally this is because they have taken time out from paid work to care for family and because many feminised jobs are paid less.

The Albanese Government has announced that, from July 2025, all workers who receive paid parental leave from the government will get 12 percent superannuation paid for that period.

This initiative is in response to a 2023 report from the Women’s Economic Equality Taskforce. It found that Australian women who have at least one child earn $2 million less over their lifetime than their male counterparts. The economic inequality between men and women was estimated to cost the economy about $128 billion annually.

On the one hand, these efforts make me feel buoyed that finally something is being done to address these issues.

And then there’s this to remind us how much hard work there is ahead. In South Australia conservative Senator Alex Antic has succeeded in having South Australia’s most senior female Liberal, Shadow Minister for Health and Aged Care Anne Ruston, ousted from the number one spot on the state Senate ticket in a preselection brawl that has split the party (the vote to give Antic the top spot was 108 to 98).

In comments addressing this, Antic said that gender was ‘a grievance narrative’ and that the party needed to get back to its conservative roots. “The ‘gender card’ is nothing but a grievance narrative, constructed by the activist media and a disgruntled political class,” he said.

The rest of us are shaking our heads!

Global focus

Economist Impact has released a groundbreaking report – The Road to Health Inclusivity: from policy to practice – and have pulled out from this assessment of the Phase 2 Health Inclusivity Index a special report on Understanding health inclusivity for women.

This latter report echoes many of the issues that must be confronted in Australia and sees many similarities in the barriers that perpetuate health disparities between men and women across many countries.

These include: the social and cultural norms that define women as primary caregivers; the lack of access to essential health services (including preventive health services); rising levels of gender-based violence; and the burden of widening gender pay gaps.

This month, from the World Health Organization, there’s a global report on how gender-equitable investments in health and care work can help fully recognise the value of this work and drive fairer and more inclusive economies and better health outcomes. The focus is on the well-recognised fact that much of this (often unpaid) work is done by girls and women.

The report, Fair share for health and care: gender and the undervaluation of health and care work, presents six policy levers:

  1. Improve working conditions for all forms of health and care work, especially for highly feminised occupations
  2. Include women more equitably in the paid labour workforce
  3. Enhance conditions of work and wages in the health and care workforce and ensure equal pay for work of equal value
  4. Address the gender gap in care, support quality care work and uphold the rights and wellbeing of caregivers
  5. Ensure that national statistics account for, measure and value all health and care work
  6. Invest in robust public health systems.

Action in the United States

In the United States, the Biden Administration (with great leadership from Vice President Kamala Harris) has introduced and started to implement a suite of new policies and strategies to advance national and global gender equality.

The White House unveiled a National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality in 2021. The Strategy, which is under the auspices of the White House Gender Policy Council, aims to support women and families through both domestic and foreign policy.

It identifies ten priorities to address gender discrimination and systemic barriers that women and girls experience, ranging from economic security and education to climate change and immigration.

There are good summaries of this work and the progress reports from various US federal agencies on the implementation of the Strategy from the Brookings Institution here and the Center for Strategic and International Studies here.

The President’s FY 2024 Budget, just released, includes billions of dollars to advance this work, along with US$12 billion for women’s health research (this effort will be led by the First Lady, Dr Jill Biden), but it remains to be seen how much of these requests the Congress will approve. (The Republicans have called the