What will difference will the new national male health policy make on the ground? Margo Saunders, a health policy consultant in Canberra, suggests that it’s a question we will need to keep asking. She writes:
“Given that Kevin Rudd reckons that Australia’s first National Male Health Policy, launched yesterday, is about 110 years late, we certainly had the right to expect something good and something comprehensive. Whether the policy meets these expectations will have more to do with its implementation than to its welcome, but fairly predictable and well-chosen, words.
The policy certainly has been a long time coming, with aborted fits and starts in the early 1990s, the first national men’s health conference in 1995 and the release, 10 years later, of position statements on men’s health by the Australian Medical Association and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners.
The National Male Health Policy’s priority areas are cover all the areas that you would expect: promoting optimal health outcomes for all Australian males; addressing health inequalities between male population groups; delivering initiatives and services that consider the health needs of Australian men in different age groups and at key transition points from youth to old age; focusing on preventive health; improving the evidence base to inform the development of policies, programs and initiatives, and improving access to health care for males by tailoring health care services and initiatives to facilitate access by men, particularly population groups at risk of poor health.
The policy certainly looks comprehensive and touches all the bases. It also attempts to avoid the ‘masculinity vs social determinants’ argument by not addressing the influence of masculinity head-on, but talking about its consequences.
The emphasis on men as individual agents, and phrases such as ‘raising male awareness’ and ‘males need to know’ feature prominently, but are balanced by a strong focus on the economic and social determinants of health. This approach differs from that of the Irish Men’s Health Policy, released in 2008, which explicitly acknowledges that men’s health-related behaviour must be constantly be negotiated against the backdrop of masculine behavioural norms – a view that finds strong support from within the men’s health literature.
The new policy comes with a commitment of $16.7 million, including the big-ticket items of $6.9 million for a national longitudinal men’s health study, $3 million for the Australian Men’s Sheds Association, and $6 million to promote the role of Indigenous men in their children’s and families’ lives. This clearly doesn’t leave a lot for everything else, such as addressing major needs in primary prevention.
Once the dust has settled and the policy itself, together with its associated documents — on social determinants, mental health, health practices, reproductive health, lifestyle behaviour, risk-taking, health in the workplace, and health services access — have been considered, there needs to be some serious thinking about priorities and funding, including the roles and responsibilities of government and non-government agencies at all levels.
There are also a range of unanswered questions, such as how this policy, and a new national women’s health policy, will relate to other national health policies, such as the National Drug Strategy and strategic approaches to obesity, and indeed whether there will be sufficient ‘oomph’ behind these policies to generate anything approaching the consistent and systematic application of a ‘gender lens’ to government policies and programs.
In releasing the policy yesterday, Minister for Indigenous Health and Rural and Regional Health, Warren Snowdon, made the important point that the policy is not just about life expectancy, but is about quality of life – in other words, it’s not about how men die but about how they live.
There are high hopes riding on this policy. Whether it makes a difference will depend on funding, commitment at all levels, and instigating changes not only in the health system but in the myriad factors which impact on men’s health.”
• Margo Saunders is an Affiliate Member of the Freemasons Foundation Centre for Men’s Health and has published articles and commentaries on men’s health and health literacy.