Celebrating Women’s Health Week research from the University of Melbourne

September 5th to 9th is Women’s Health Week. It’s a good reminder for all women as well as men to take the time to think about the issues affecting women’s health and what they could do to ensure the healthiest future possible for themselves and their families.

At the University of Melbourne, we have many extraordinary women whose work has changed the face of women’s health on a local and global scale.

Here is just a small snapshot of some of the incredible work that is happening, across all stages of a woman’s life and in a range of different cultural communities. Because being healthy and staying healthy needs to be everyone’s priority.

The importance of the first 1000 days
Professor Kerry Arabena

The First 1000 Days between a woman’s pregnancy and her child’s second birthday offers a unique window of opportunity to shape healthier and more prosperous futures.

However, early intervention support for mother and baby is not always possible or available, for some Indigenous Australians, and as a result the children can be subject to poorer health and cognitive development.

Professor Kerry Arabena, Chair of Indigenous Health from the University of Melbourne’s School of Population and Global Health, is co-ordinating a comprehensive approach for Indigenous infants and their parents.

The model aims to bring together antenatal and neonatal support designed by and for Indigenous health providers and leaders to address the needs of families and babies, and tackle the social determinants that impact on the quality of life for the whole community.

As our understanding of developmental science improves, it becomes clearer that adverse events in a child’s life leads to structural changes in brain development that have life-long and societal ramifications,” says Professor Arabena, in recent a statement to the Australian Human Rights Commission. “We now also know these effects are intergenerational. Not intervening will not only affect this generation of children, but also the next.”

Read more about the first 1000 days model here: https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/1000-days-to-close-the-gap

Improving support for our largest ever generation of adolescents will transform our future
Professor Susan Sawyer

Professor Susan Sawyer, together with Professor George Patton, is leading a 30-strong international expert panel investigating global health issues and decades of neglect that has damaged the health and wellbeing of adolescents and young adults across the world.

The Lancet Commission on Adolescent Health and Wellbeing, published in May 2016 aims to turn the tide and safeguard our largest generation of adolescents and young adults in human history. It highlights the triple dividend that can accrue from investing in the lives of the world’s 1.8 billion adolescents – for adolescents now, for their futures, and for the next generation given that young people are the next generation to parent.

Issues specific to young girls across the world are highlighted: benefits of education, unmet need for family planning, child marriage and early pregnancy. The futures of 47,000 girls are derailed every day because of early marriage, denying them a safe and successful transition into adulthood.

Half of all young people in the world face alarming vulnerabilities because they are girls, and 20% of all women experience sexual violence as children.

Alcohol is a huge risk factor for the 20 to 24-year-old group and sadly, maternal disorders are the leading cause of death in young women.

It is a critical time of formative growth where unhealthy patterns can form and often remain for life.

“This generation of adolescents and young adults can transform all of our futures,” says Professor Sawyer.

“There is no more pressing task than to ensure that they have the resources to do so.”

Professor Sawyer is the Chair of Adolescent Health at the Department of Paediatrics, The University of Melbourne. She is the Group Leader of Health Services Delivery for Adolescents at Murdoch Childrens Research Institute and Director of the Centre for Adolescent Health at the Royal Children’s Hospital.

The option of egg freezing for women juggling career and motherhood
Doctor Michelle Peate

Doctor Michelle Peate is Program Leader for the Psychosocial Health and Wellbeing Research Unit based at the  University of Melbourne  Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Royal Women’s Hospital.

Women who choose to have children later on in life may experience age-related infertility which could result in difficulty falling pregnant when they want to because of age-related egg quality. This is why egg freezing may be of interest to them.

For women considering the option of egg freezing, Doctor Peate warns that there is a crucial need to improve and support decision making around egg freezing.

Many women are choosing to defer parenting until their careers are more established, which has resulted in a rapid increase in age-related infertility.

The optimum age to have children is from 20-30 years, which often coincides with a time of professional growth and career establishment.

Men produce sperm throughout adult life, but women are born with all the eggs they are ever going to have, and they are lost from puberty onwards.

The ideal egg freezing age is probably between 31-35 years, however the decision to freeze eggs is complex, including consideration of potential physical and psychological harm, personal values and uncertainty regarding future use and successful outcomes.

Employers offering egg freezing have been criticised for pressurizing women to prioritize career over family, avoiding commitment to family-friendly policies around childcare and parental leave.

Also it is the IVF companies who generally provide the counselling, which creates a conflict of interest as they stand to directly benefit financially.

“There is an unmet need for unbiased, evidence-based decisional support from a source without conflict of interest,” says Dr Peate

Helping women and children in family settings
Professor Kelsey Hegarty

Academic general practitioner Professor Kelsey Hegarty is a leading voice in the family violence field in Australia and internationally. With one in five women experiencing physical, sexual or emotional abuse, Professor Hegarty wants to develop more effective resources to support doctors, nurses and the health care system when assisting families where violence is occurring.

Professor Hegarty co-chairs the Melbourne Research Alliance, leads an Abuse and Violence research program in the Melbourne Medical School’s Department of General Practice and co-chairs the interdisciplinary research alliance MAEVe (Melbourne Research Alliance to End Violence against women and their children).

In May this year, Professor Hegarty was appointed as Australia’s first chair of Family Violence Prevention. This new role aims to alleviate the burden of family violence through research, training, clinical practice and patient care across the health sector.

Professor Hegarty also devised the Composite Abuse Scale – an innovative system for measuring intimate partner violence – and advised the World Health Organisation on guidelines for health practitioners and health systems change.

Her current research includes educational and complex system interventions around identification of family violence in health care settings and responding to women and children exposed to abuse through health care and through the use of new technologies.

“There is a global consensus that health care professionals need to know how to identify patients experiencing violence and also be able to provide supportive care and referral to services. More than just a supportive role, the health system can also help empower and assist women to enhance their own and their children’s safety to improve their lives and future,” said Professor Hegarty.

Learn more about Kelsey Hegarty’s work at the University of Melbourne’s Pursuit website.

Helping women prepare for cancer treatment
Professor Lynette Joubert 

Lynette Joubert, Professor of Social Work in the Melbourne School of Health Sciences, has dedicated her career to applying social work practice in health care to engineer better outcomes and improved patient experience.

Professor Joubert heads up a practice research program that partners academic researchers and health organisations to inform social interventions for positive health and mental health outcomes. The research areas include suicide prevention, measuring social networks and their impact, and evidence-based social work practices and social interventions.

Recent research has included promoting an improved patient experience in gynaecological cancer care in collaboration with the Royal Women's Hospital (RWH); and optimising the capability of the allied health workforce within cancer prehabilitation in partnership with the Department of Human Services.

Professor Joubert and a team of practice researchers at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and the Austin Hospital have been exploring the social needs of women undergoing treatment for cancer.

The researchers have evaluated the contribution that effective intervention can have on decision making, supporting effective integration with social demands such as parenting and other relationships, and improving the patient experience for women.

The research team’s findings focus on the ‘patient voice’ and the complex and multifactorial nature of the response of women in adjusting to diagnosis and treatment for cancer.

Professor Joubert hopes the findings from her research program will help develop practice guidelines that result in patients feeling more empowered in their decision making – allowing for improved outcomes and a more positive patient experience.