Health communication for policy change and better patient care

Australian Public Health Conference 2020

Plenary Session 5 – Health Communication

Keynote speakers:

  • Danielle Wood, Chief Health Officer, Grattan Institute – Moving the big rocks: using evidence to influence policy
  • Tricia Malowney OAM, President, Women with Disabilities Australia – Women with disabilities and health information – Ableism at work

Today’s plenary shone a light on the importance of using evidence to influence important policy debates. While most of us think this is a no-brainer, it doesn’t always happen. We also heard about ‘ableism’ – discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities, or people who are perceived to have disabilities.

In her presentation, Danielle Wood from the Grattan Institute provided many great tips for public health and policy advocates everywhere. This included the importance of understanding the gaps in the policy discussion in framing an argument or counter-argument.

One of those gaps is what Danielle described as ‘the fairly narrow group’ currently involved in our policy decision making. This group is ‘well resourced, highly motivated, and they already have a seat at the table and are heard from regularly,’ Danielle said. She described their influence as ‘disproportionate’.

‘I’m worried other voices and community groups aren’t heard from. It’s important for politicians to hear more from people whose lives are influenced by their policy decisions.’

Danielle said influencing policy development can take many forms, from sounding the alarm to provoking the public debate. It is also important to create a hearts and minds strategy to win over the public, and in so doing put pressure on the politicians.

She also spoke of the importance of using experts to convince others of the benefits of change (an insider-led strategy), together with a ‘trojan horse strategy’ to convince people at the coalface to change.

Danielle warned that ‘when the stakes are high the misinformation can proliferate’. Her advice to the conference delegates was to ‘kill lies quickly and often’.

Disability advocate, Tricia Malowney OAM, speaking on behalf of the 2.4 million women and girls over the age of 16 with disabilities in Australia, shared powerful personal stories from women with disabilities and their experiences of ableism, and its impact on their lives.

Janet has a PhD, is fully employed, a home owner, and is well spoken. She is also a quadriplegic, requires 24-hour support, and is unable to undertake any task for herself. Janet can move one hand, has a fully functioning brain, and can speak for herself. However, because of her disability Janet is consistently told ‘you don’t want to be resuscitated do you’ assuming her quality of life is so poor that she must want to die.

‘Janet has a fully-functioning life that she enjoys,’ Tricia said, ‘but people assume otherwise’.

Tracey has a mild intellectual disability. She is not in a committed relationship, having left an abusive relationship. When she gave birth in hospital, staff referred her to child protection. The baby was removed from her care until she was able to prove she was a competent parent.

‘It is assumed if you have an intellectual disability you cannot be an effective parent, without taking into account informal or NDIS support,’ Tricia said.

Tricia shared the sort of things women with disabilities regularly say to her:

  • People don’t speak to us
  • They don’t think we need to know about our health
  • They think we won’t understand
  • They think we can’t or shouldn’t make decisions about our bodies
  • They think we have ‘handlers’

Tricia also shared the things women with disabilities want to know:

  • Am I allowed to ask the doctor why I’m on tablets?
  • Am I allowed to ask why I’m in hospital?
  • Am I allowed to ask why I’m having surgery?
  • Am I allowed to say no?
  • Am I allowed to ask to see another doctor?
  • Can my friend come with me?

Tricia said women with disabilities in Australia deserve better, and simply ask to be treated with respect and dignity and to be spoken to directly.

‘They want information that is easy to understand and to know how to find it. They want to be told what is happening and why they are receiving particular treatments. And they want the opportunity to ask questions, and to be told the answers in language that is easy to understand.’





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