Jean Hailes talks Women’s Health


Jean Hailes talks Women's Health

Updated September 2023 | 7 min read
Words by Tara Ali

We spoke to Sarah White, CEO of Jean Hailes for Women’s Health, who shares her advice for how we can build an equitable healthcare system for women and all Australians.

Since November 2022, Dr Sarah White has been the chief executive officer (CEO) at Jean Hailes for Women’s Health, a national not-for-profit organisation working in public health, research, clinical services and policy.

Sarah’s career trajectory has seen her lead a variety of health programs. Her previous roles include director of Quit Australia, director of communications and foundation at the Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne and director of communications at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research in New York.

We spoke to her about how she’s using her experience and influence to make the healthcare system more accessible for all Australians.

Why is the work of Jean Hailes for Women's Health so important?

"I’ve known and admired the work of Jean Hailes for 20 years, particularly their work to provide evidence-based information to women and health professionals on subject matters that were rarely discussed privately and never discussed publicly. ‘Women’s health issues’ like endometriosis, heavy menstrual bleeding and pelvic pain were shrouded in mystery and stigma, and endured silently and stoically by thousands. Even menopause, a natural phase of life affecting half the entire Australian population, was – and often still is – treated weirdly, like ‘the change’ that should never be discussed in polite company!

"We’re entering a time in which women’s health issues are finally being acknowledged as health issues that should be discussed, researched and managed better … and not approached as if the person has some sort of weirdly shameful experience that must be hidden.

"We need to continue providing accessible health information to inform and empower people to recognise when something is not right and to manage their own health, and we need to continue upskilling the health workforce to make sure no-one is having their pain disbelieved or their symptoms or conditions left unmanaged. The time is right to advocate – along with key partners, like the Australasian Menopause Society, and the colleges representing health professionals – for changes in care, attitudes and policies that will drive improvements in the quality of life for any woman, or non-binary and trans people assigned female at birth, who experience any of these health issues."

Need help with menopause?

In our Menopause Matters podcast, join host Alison Brahe-Daddo as she unpacks the experience of this life-changing yet entirely normal part of life. Speaking with leading menopause experts, including Dr Elizabeth Farrell, Medical Director of Jean Hailes for Women’s Health, Alison sheds light on issues faced by many women.

Your background is in health – why are you so passionate about it?

"I believe that health is fundamental to everything we do, or want to do, in life. Poor health robs individuals, and often their families, of time, money, happiness and opportunity. Once you’ve spent time speaking to someone who is in so much pain that having a shower or putting on the kettle is the big achievement of their day, you cannot help but realise that good health is the single most valuable thing that any one of us will ever have.

"I’m particularly passionate about preventing poor health. Unfortunately, the physical, economic, policy, social and cultural factors around us mostly push us towards poor health. We need to help people avoid poor health in two ways: by empowering them with the skills, knowledge, motivation and capacity to make good choices for their health and to take action if they are unwell, and by working to change the physical, economic, policy, social and cultural factors around people so that these factors push us all towards good health."

What are some of the major inequities in Australia's health system?

"Unfortunately, our health system isn’t equitably accessible. For example, people living in rural, regional and remote areas typically travel further and pay more to access healthcare. People who speak a language other than English, or who are not health literate, often cannot understand how to manage their health or seek appropriate care.

"We know [for] the groups who have poorer health outcomes – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, people who identify as LGBTIQA+, people with mental illness or socio-economic disadvantage, to name but a few – our priority must be to modify the system to account for the different needs of individuals, and not a one-size-fits-all ‘general population’. There is work happening in this space in the health system and the not-for-profit sector – for example, Jean Hailes provides health information in plain English, in 11 other languages and in written and audio form – but there is still so much to do to make sure each person gets the healthcare they need."

How do you address the inequities in the healthcare system that are stacked against women?

"Currently, the treatments and care provided by healthcare professionals reflect a worldwide and centuries-long failure of science and medicine – whether through ignorance and/or misogyny – that has prioritised men’s health over women’s health.

"A woman presenting at a health service in Australia will likely go through the same ‘patient journey’ as a man, but her medication will have been developed and tested on male subjects. Her clinical team (both men and women) might not know that some conditions, such as heart attacks, present differently in women, and her pain is more likely to be dismissed or disbelieved. And ‘women’s health issues’, such as pelvic pain, endometriosis and perimenopause, have been underfunded (relative to the investment in ‘men’s health issues’ or the extent of need) for decades, so we simply don’t have the diagnostics and treatments for common conditions affecting women and non-binary and trans people assigned female at birth.

"I will use my influence to advocate that sex and gender are front and centre of decision-making in science and medicine in Australia. Changes have started, but we need to go further. I want all health practitioners to be able to provide care on an issue (menopause) that affects 50% of the population. I will be using evidence-based arguments to advocate that medicines and treatments, both old and new, are developed and/or tested specifically on both males and females (which, by the way, is likely to improve effectiveness for both men and women). I will also advocate [to make sure] the historic injustice of under-funding ‘women’s health issues’ is redressed with meaningful investment, that all health professionals are trained to provide gender-sensitive care, and that gender-specific clinical guidelines and health metrics are developed. Many, many women (and some men) have been advocating change for decades. I am merely picking up – not inventing – the baton.”

Do you have any advice for how women can advance in a male-dominated field?

"Healthcare research and policy development are male dominated at the top but this is definitely changing. My advice is to think and act strategically for your business and your own career, and demonstrate that you are doing so. Seek and welcome feedback to improve both good and bad performance. If people know you’re serious about climbing the ladder and you show that you are working actively to do that, you’ll be on their radar for new opportunities.”

How do you change the culture of an organisation to facilitate more women in leadership positions?

"Be respectfully and professionally vocal in presenting the argument for having more women in leadership positions at every opportunity. Talk about it as [being] smart for the business, as there is plenty of evidence out there about the benefits of having women in leadership. And make sure you apply this same strategy to increase diversity across the whole workplace.”

What does equity in healthcare mean to you?

"Equity in healthcare means every individual has what they need to enjoy good health. It’s not about equal care; it’s about providing care tailored to an individual’s need so that everyone enjoys equal (good) health outcomes."

How important is it for you to forge the path for younger generations of women to follow?

"I want to forge a path that can be followed by younger generations of women, women of colour of any age, trans women, or anyone else who needs a path forged. Everyone in leadership has a responsibility to work to remove gatekeepers and structural barriers so that everyone else has an equal chance of success. One of the key ways I try to do this is to think carefully and read widely about the structural barriers that people might experience and seek to remove them … I just wish my sphere of influence was much broader!"

What’s the best piece of leadership advice you’ve ever been given?

"I’m not sure there is any one piece of advice that has been a magic bullet for leadership. However, I keep coming back to the importance of being self-aware: am I empowering people or dictating to them? Are my words and actions creating a safe space to make and own mistakes? Am I being a perfectionist? And so on. There is a lot of advice about leadership around, but without self-awareness it’s impossible to improve your leadership."

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