Insights

Multicultural Women’s Health in Australia: A Closer Look

With 28% of Australians born overseas, our nation is shaped by its diversity. While being a strength, this diversity also introduces complexities in various sectors, including women’s health. As it is Jean Hailes Women’s Health Week, I wanted to take the opportunity to draw from my background as a multicultural communications professional, and my personal experience, to look into the unique challenges and explore solutions in the context of women’s health in multicultural Australia. This year, Jean Hailes’ theme is “Grow your knowledge,” and it’s about supporting women to make informed decisions about their health with information that’s easy to understand.

Woman Doing Yoga multicultural women's health

Challenges identified

  • Cultural norms and practices: each culture has its beliefs and customs, especially around women’s health. These can influence how women understand and approach their health. For example, in Australia, it is advised for women to have yearly medical checkups. However, in some countries, women don’t get enough information about important health checks, like maternal exams and pap smears.
  • Language barriers: being fluent in English is a privilege. For those who aren’t, misunderstandings can arise, especially in the sensitive realm of healthcare. Providing healthcare information in the patient’s language reduces misunderstanding and helps people feel more secure.
  • Lack of diverse representation: much like other spheres, such as in sports, there is a noticeable gap in multicultural representation in certain parts of the healthcare sector, particularly at a leadership level, certain specialist roles and when comparing rural versus urban workforces.
  • Economic hurdles: for many first-generation immigrants or refugees, limited resources can make accessing quality healthcare a significant challenge.

Why addressing these challenges matters

Inclusivity in healthcare goes beyond respect; it’s about ensuring that every woman in Australia, regardless of her cultural background, gets optimal care. One misstep can have significant consequences, so there needs to be a safe, comprehensive approach to multicultural women’s health.

Pregnant Woman Touching Womb multicultural women's health

Towards improvement

  • Multicultural research: to tailor services effectively, government and healthcare providers must first understand their target audiences. Conducting an in-depth study on the unique needs, beliefs, and challenges that multicultural communities face is essential. This research will inform policy-making, program design, and outreach strategies, ensuring that services are relevant and effective.
  • Cultural training for professionals: equip healthcare workers with cultural competency training. This helps in understanding and navigating the diverse cultural nuances associated with health. For example, seeking medical help in multicultural communities is a collectivist approach as it emphasises the reliance on relationships to solve problems involving emotional and relationship-based issues.
  • Bilingual professionals: encouraging bilingual individuals in the healthcare sector can significantly enhance communication and patient care.
  • Community engagement: partnering with community groups and leaders can raise awareness about health services and address specific health concerns.
  • Accessible health resources: providing health information in multiple languages and ensuring they are culturally appropriate is essential for comprehensive care.

My experience

After returning to Australia from a visit home to Hong Kong, I was armed with advice from my trusted doctor: get a check-up for an ovarian cyst. Simple, I thought. In Hong Kong, the process is straightforward: a single visit, and you get your answers. However, the Australian healthcare system soon revealed its complex layers.

My initial thought was to consult a gynaecologist directly. However, the procedure required me first to meet a GP and, from there, with a referral in hand, visit a specialist. When the idea of a second opinion cropped up, the realisation struck – I’d need to start again with the GP. Every step, every consultation was draining my pockets and, more importantly, my energy.

Moving on to the surgery was yet another maze. While I expected a consolidated cost, I was met with separate charges for everything – the hospital, the anaesthetist, the surgeon. The physical pain of my condition ran in parallel with the mounting stress of these separate bills. And then there was the anxious wait for Medicare claims, a tedious process that could take one to three months.

The surgery brought clarity in one regard: I was diagnosed with level 4 endometriosis, which finally explained the persistent pain I felt. Yet, clarity brought with it its own set of challenges.

After my diagnosis, I turned to the internet in my quest for information, hoping to find resources in-language. Though I’m fluent in English, in those moments, all I wanted was the comfort and security of my mother tongue. I yearned for that emotional connection, that sense of being understood without explaining. My efforts were mostly fruitless, and in my frustration and need for understanding, I found myself calling my doctor back in Hong Kong.

This wasn’t just about a language barrier or my proficiency in English. It was about the profound comfort and security I felt when my concerns were addressed in my first language, especially during a challenging health situation.

Sharing this isn’t just about my personal story but a reflection of what many multicultural individuals might feel. It’s a glimpse into the silent struggles, the unseen barriers, and the emotional rollercoaster many of us go through. We may be miles away from our country of birth, but our hearts often seek that cultural and linguistic bridge, especially in our moments of vulnerability.

Doctor using stethoscope multicultural women's health

Conclusion

Ensuring the health needs of multicultural women in Australia are met requires understanding, collaboration, and effort. By drawing parallels to the sports sector, where inclusivity has shown numerous benefits, there’s great potential for the Australian healthcare system to lead the way in multicultural women’s health.  

To learn more about Women’s Health Week, visit the Jean Hailes website. It features new resources and information on hormones, PCOS, menopause, cervical screening self-collection, heart health, persistent pelvic pain and nutrition.

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