Getting the Elephant Out of the Room on Women’s Health Issues
27 August 2018 at 8:43 am
Janet Hailes Michelmore AO is philanthropic director of Jean Hailes For Women’s Health, an organisation aiming to improve health literacy for women of all ages. She is this week’s Changemaker.
Despite Hailes-Michelmore being the daughter of the late Dr Jean Hailes, it took six months after the foundation was first set up in 1992 before she was persuaded to come on board.
With a background in education, Hailes Michelmore said she didn’t believe she had the skills or expertise to become involved in a health organisation, but soon realised she was the key to helping the everyday woman understand complex health issues that can be overwhelming.
Jean Hailes For Women’s Health works with clinicians, researchers and educators to help women live a healthy life.
The foundation was recently recognised for its efforts in women’s health, named as the 2018 Telstra Victorian Social Change Maker.
In this week’s changemaker, Hailes Michelmore talks about removing the stigma on women’s health, and why it’s important to put your health first even if you don’t want to.
What made you want to follow in the footsteps of your mother and become so involved with advocating on women’s health issues?
I was brought up by a cardiologist father and a women’s health specialist mother and we were very much brought up in a household where it was important to look after yourself. I come from an education background, as a secondary school teacher, but was raised in a very medical and health based household.
It was in the 1980s that our first child was born with a serious cardiac defect and died when she was 15 months old. It was absolutely terrible, but I had the support of a family who understood the health system, and that made a huge difference. I was determined after that if there was ever a time when I had an opportunity to support women navigating the healthcare system, I would do it. This opportunity arose when my Mum died in 1988, and her colleagues set up the foundation. They wanted someone involved that was a family member, and at the time, I was the only one in Australia.
Your background is secondary teaching, how was that incorporated this into your work at the foundation?
When I first joined, I guess I was a “consumer representative”, looking into how the average woman in the street would respond to our ideas. Our mission was clear after that, we wanted to set up an organisation that successfully integrated clinical research and care and community and health education. My role became about setting up the community and health professional education. That was my comfort zone: education frameworks, and working out different learning styles.
You recently stepped down as CEO, and now deal with philanthropic partnerships, what does that role involve?
If you put it simply, it’s about ensuring longevity, through a variety of funding sources. Because I’ve been here so long, I have an understanding of what our funding sources are, and what the challenges are of selling prevention in the funding arena. It’s easier to reach out to funding sources with a much more emotionally charged topic than keeping women well, preventing disease and preventing progression of disease. It’s not such a pull on the heart strings, and it takes much longer to see the results of that than say getting a kid off the street or into a job or frankly some groundbreaking piece of research.
How do you go about making people see the importance of women’s health issues?
It’s about clearly articulating that we’re about keeping women well both physically and emotionally. We take a whole-life approach and don’t focus on a single disease. We aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel, we look at the current landscape and say okay there is a gap here, and work needs to be done, and then we have the trust of women and health professionals to provide the best next steps.
For example, we’ve been very involved in developing the national action plan for endometriosis. There’s been a tremendous amount of media coverage, and you have women with endometriosis now that are really working together to ensure the message gets heard. The government responded and then Jean Hailes had a role of coordinating the community consultation to develop a national action plan for the federal government.
How do you combat the stigma which surrounds women’s health issues?
Our logo for Women’s Health Week is a pink elephant… so it’s all about getting the elephant out of the room. We make sure that we address some of those issues that women don’t want to talk about. We’re going to be talking about endometriosis, we’re going to talk about heavy menstrual bleeding. We try to use a variety of ways to share information. We do that on a variety of levels, we have a really strong media and communications team, and then we talk to policymakers at the state and federal level, we have to take a really strategic route to getting the elephant out of the room.
We’ve also always had a policy of trying to engage men in women’s health issues, because it is important everyone knows about it, and is comfortable talking about it.
Do you think people are paying more attention to these issues?
I think the fact that there has been totally bipartisan support for endometriosis from the government, you’d have to say it’s improved enormously. But then you look at an issue like domestic violence, which is the greatest cause of ill-health in women, and people don’t talk about that enough. So on specific topics I think we’re doing much better. There’s always room for improvement but to see all sides of politics stand in a room and come up with a bipartisan approach is a huge step forward.
A lot of leaders in the sector are pretty flat out as I’m sure you are, why do you think it’s important to have some down time?
One of my mother’s mantras was, “you’ve gotta look after yourself, because no one else is going to do it”, and it’s actually true. You’ve got to take the time to have health checks and spend time doing what you love. If your idea of hell is pulling on Lycra, and going to the gym, as it is for me, then don’t do it! Personally, I love playing tennis or walking the dog, or even just taking a second to appreciate what’s going on around you. You can become so tied up in reading your emails, or making sure you’re writing the latest funding submission and it’s never ending… and I have a pretty bad inability to say no. I do absolutely love what I do at work, so I hate the term work-life balance because it’s assuming that work is not enjoyable. Having a great team helps as well, because there isn’t one person in that organisation who I wouldn’t step on hot coals for.