About Bloody Time: Australia’s state health ministers unite to call for endometriosis action

Australia’s state health ministers have united to call on the federal government for urgent changes to Medicare for women suffering from endometriosis.

Off the back of news.com.au’s ‘About Bloody Time’ campaign launch on Friday, every state and territory in the country has supported calls for longer, Medicare-funded consultations for the one million sufferers of the chronic and painful disease.

In an unprecedented show of unity, health ministers for New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, Northern Territory, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory have backed the campaign’s initiative, after news.com.au’s petition reached its target of 20,000 signatures in less than 30 hours. It now has more than 33,000 signatures.

Despite the prevalence of the disease, specialists are ill-equipped to manage pain and rebates are so low there is no incentive to take time to provide thorough care. An initial gynaecologist appointment currently receives less than half the Medicare rebate of other specialist appointments dealing with issues as complicated as endometriosis.

Queensland Minister for Health and Women Shannon Fentiman supported the push “to extend the Medicare-funding for longer gynaecological consults”, calling on her federal colleagues to “take up this chance to improve healthcare for all Australian women and girls.”

NSW Minister for Health Ryan Park described endometriosis as a “chronic, debilitating condition” that required greater attention.

“For a condition that impacts such a sizeable proportion of our community, there is more we can do to support the research and knowledge base of this condition,” Minister Park said.

He was backed by the state’s Minister for Women Jodie Harrison, who added, “We certainly need to do more to raise awareness of endometriosis and provide appropriate support and care for women and girls who are affected by it.”

Victorian Minister for Health Mary-Anne Thomas said women have, for too long, had their health treated as a “niche issue”, and their “pain overlooked, underestimated, and under diagnosed.”

“This has been exacerbated by a decade of neglect of Medicare by successive Federal Coalition Governments,” Minister Thomas said.

“For those 1 in 9 women with endometriosis, the journey to diagnosis can take on average seven years. It’s clear that women are hurting. But they are not being heard.

“Victoria has a proud track record of working to improve women’s health outcomes, most recently launching our women’s pain inquiry and investing in our nation-leading $153 million women’s health package – including establishing 20 new women’s health clinics for conditions like endometriosis and pelvic pain.

“Similarly, the Albanese Government has already done a body of work towards improving women’s health, led by Assistant Minister Ged Kearney. But we know there is still a long way to go.

“Collectively, we can make a profound difference to the lives of so many women by making healthcare accessible, affordable, and comprehensive for every single woman in this country. The time to do this is now.”

In September, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare revealed the rate of hospitalisations for endometriosis-related complications had doubled in the past decade for women aged 20 to 24, putting significant demand on the state’s public hospitals.

ACT Minister for Health Rachel Stephen-Smith said in-depth, affordable consults were “the kind of practical change that could help women right across the country get equitable access to care”.

“With the lowest rate of GP bulk-billing in the country and high out-of-pocket costs for specialists, too many Canberra women and girls simply can’t afford the vital primary care and specialist services they need,” Minister Stephen-Smith said, adding a lack of resources out “significant demand pressure on (the city’s) Endometriosis Centre and shifts costs to the Territory.”

South Australian Health Minister Chris Picton said longer appointments could also “help women to avoid the need for costly and invasive surgery” – with numerous surgeries causing problems for women later in life.

“Increased access to dedicated Medicare-funded appointments would not only be a huge relief for women, it would help reduce pressure on busy emergency departments right across the country,” Minister Picton said.

Meanwhile, WA’s Health Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson said the Cook Government – led by WA Premier Roger Cook – endorsed the push for longer consults.

“The Cook Government supports measures to improve endometriosis care and diagnosis for women, including longer appointments, and welcomes the important steps already being taken by the Federal Government in this space,” Minister Sanderson said.

Tasmania’s Minister for Health Guy Barnett added he was committed to “ensuring women are supporting in accessing health services to both diagnosis and treatments.”

NT Minister for Health Selena Uibo further joined the chorus calling for change, speaking on behalf of the “thousands of women in the Northern Territory who suffer from endometriosis”.

“I support improving the lives of Territory women to make sure they are heard and receive timely care to combat the effects of this silent condition,” Minister Uibo said.

Medicare is failing women and it’s About Bloody Time things changed. About one million suffer from endometriosis. There is no cure. Help is hard to come by and in rural or regional areas, it’s virtually impossible. We are campaigning for longer, Medicare-funded consultations for endometriosis diagnosis and treatment.

The combined backing of the country’s health ministers comes after nine independent state-based MPs signed a letter of support for urgent action.

It took just one day for NSW MP Michael Regan, the Member for Wakehurst, to rally fellow crossbench members to signal their support calling on the federal government to make key changes to Medicare.

“When it was explained to me the incredible physical distress experienced by sufferers, compounded by the administrative mess and financial burden being placed on them, I was genuinely mortified,” Mr Regan told news.com.au.

“Obviously it can be a difficult topic for some, but as soon as I started asking fellow MPs and staff about the issue, a whole host of stories came up. For me, supporting this particular campaign to raise awareness and to get fairer treatment options, was a no-brainer.

“I couldn’t believe it wasn’t already done. That a campaign was still needed. I’m only here in parliament to get s**t done. This should already be done.”

Endometriosis Rapid Fire Questions

In the letter, addressed to Minister Park, the MPs point out how, through their own personal networks and in their electorates, “the need for better recognition and accessible treatment of this condition is very clear.”

Wagga MP Dr Joe McGirr, who signed the letter, used to be an emergency doctor. He conceded he’s “not an expert” on endometriosis, but understood it was “quite difficult to treat.”

“As a local member, I’ve had a number of people approach me and they’ve had really difficult journeys with this, and there is a real lack of understanding,” Mr McGirr said.

“You do get the sense that it falls into that category of ‘women’s problems’, and that’s really not good enough.

“Sometimes, when the profession doesn’t quite know what to do takes a very clinical approach to these things.

“And really, it is a non-hospital thing. There are procedures that people are required to have, but the ongoing care, the management, is an outpatient situation.

“The women who come to me and explain what they’re going through, the issue they’re having is there’s a lack of empathy for their concerns.

“People with this condition need ongoing care and strategies, and that needs a non-hospital approach to provide that level of care.”

Mr McGirr, who specialised in osteoporosis and orthopaedics [his wife Kerin is also an orthopaedic surgeon], said balancing non-surgical methods and more holistic care was a key focus with treating patients.

“Kerin would see women with untreated osteoporosis who were getting fractures, and what’s the point of fixing the fractures if you’re not treating osteoporosis?” he said.

“And what’s worse, not diagnosing it early enough. If you diagnose it early enough to get the treatment in place, you can make a big difference to the rate of fractures.

“The surgeons are very happy to keep fixing the bones, but what needed to happen, was nonsurgical treatment, holistic care. Calcium, vitamin D, exercise, weight and medication.

“Repeated operations are not the answer. And this [endometriosis] is the same situation to me, because you’ve got doctors rewarded for doing procedures, so they’re going to do a laparoscopy because that’s what they get paid for.

“We need to put an emphasis on non-surgical treatments, and you can’t do that if you’re just going to reward procedures.”

About Bloody Time is an editorial campaign by news.com.au that been developed in collaboration with scientists recommended by the Australian Science Media Centre, and with the support of a grant from the Walkley Foundation’s META Public Interest Journalism fund.

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