Men's Health Literacy in Australia: In Search of a Gender Lens

By Peerson, Anita; Saunders, Margo | International Journal of Men's Health, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Men's Health Literacy in Australia: In Search of a Gender Lens


Peerson, Anita, Saunders, Margo, International Journal of Men's Health


Proposed Australian health system reforms allude to health literacy as a major lever for a 'well informed public' and helping individuals assume more responsibility for their health. New national men's and women's health policies also acknowledge, to varying degrees, the importance of health literacy, but with little indication of why gender might be relevant. This omission reflects the absence of a coherent evidence base on health literacy and gender in Australia as well as in countries where health literacy has been more extensively examined. A lack of consensus on approaches to defining, measuring, and reporting on health literacy adds to the difficulties. We propose that viewing health literacy through a "gender lens" would contribute to building a much-needed evidence base about men's health literacy.

Keywords: men, health literacy, gender, masculinity, gender analysis, Australia

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The past decade has seen increased attention on men's health, including men's concepts of health (Fletcher, Higginbotham & Dobson, 2002; Richardson, 2004; Robertson, 2006, 2007), how men engage with the health system (Galdas, Cheater & Marshall, 2005; O'Brien, Hunt & Hart, 2005; Smith, Braunack-Mayer & Wittert, 2006), and men's responses to preventive health and health promotion initiatives (Aoun, Donovan, Johnson & Egger, 2002; Arras, Ogletree & Welshimer, 2006; Burton, Walsh & Brown, 2008; Dumbrell & Mathai, 2008, Singleton, 2008; Robertson, Douglas, Ludbrook, Reid & van Teijlingen, 2008; Verdonk, Seesing & de Rijk, 2010; Victor, Ravenell, Freeman et al., 2011). Australian health system reforms (National Health & Hospitals Reform Commission [NHHRC]), 2009; Australian Government 2010a), and preventive health initiatives now under the guidance of the new National Preventive Health Agency (National Preventative Health Taskforce, 2009; Australian Government, 2010b; Department of Health & Ageing, 2010d) are proceeding in parallel with the implementation of a National Primary Health Care Strategy (Department of Health & Ageing, 2009, 2010a), Australia's first National Male Health Policy (Department of Health & Ageing, 2008a, 2010b), and an updated National Women's Health Policy (Department of Health & Ageing, 2008b, 2010c). The importance of health literacy has been acknowledged in two sets of recommendations (NHHRC, 2009; Department of Health & Ageing, 2009), but the absence of a national health literacy strategy means that research addressing health literacy continues to be uncoordinated. Complicating matters is an inconsistent approach to what "health literacy" means and how its relationship to health promotion, individual responsibility and empowerment should be understood (Tones, 2002; Nutbeam, 2008; Kickbusch, 2009; Wills, 2009).

There has been little systematic attempt to examine the relationship between health literacy and men's health outcomes, or even to relate health literacy to the health-and-gender literature (Peerson & Saunders, 2009b). The disparate evidence presents significant challenges, at least in Australia. Calls to extend the gender and health promotion evidence base (Keleher, 2004; Broom, 2008) and include gender as a factor in health promotion (Kolip, 2007; Smith & Robertson, 2008) suggest that it is timely to consider a similar approach to health literacy.

Such an approach should not be regarded as unusual. International calls for gender sensitivity in health have resulted in the promotion of gender analysis frameworks (to encourage the application of a "gender lens" to health policies and programs) (United Nations, 2006; Tiessen, 2007), and gender mainstreaming (integrating men's and women's health concerns in the design, development, implementation and evaluation of policies and programs) (World Health Organization, 2002a, 2008).

Britain's Gender Equality Duty Code of Practice (Equal Opportunities Commission, 2007) requires public authorities to promote equality of opportunity and fairness between men and women, consistent with specific goals and actions. …

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