Taking action on health inequity

16 March 2017

Professor Sharon Friel, Director of the School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet) is celebrated as one of the world’s most influential female leaders in global health.

Professor Friel is the chief investigator on current major research collaborations in governance, public policy, trade and health inequities, including working as the Co-Director the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Centre for Research Excellence on the Social Determinants of Health Equity.

How a society runs its affairs influences the daily living conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age. These, in turn, affect how we feel, behave and engage on a day to day basis, the long-term stress that we experience, and the acute and chronic suffering of disease and ultimately death. A key focus of her research is understanding “how these macroeconomic and social issues get under people’s skin” says Professor Friel.

“There’s a difference of 27 years in life-expectancy across the JapAsia Pacific region. You’ve got to ask the question: why is it that somewhere like Papua New Guinea has such a stark difference in life-expectancy, compared to somewhere like Japan, where on average people live to 82 years? Why is it that in a rich country like Australia, the poorest 20 per cent of the population can still expect to die, on average, six years earlier compared to the richest 20 per cent of the population, and those who are more socially disadvantaged by employment status and education, also have a higher risk of depression, diabetes, heart disease and cancer, as do Indigenous Australians.

“These differences are not explained by biology or bad behaviour – it’s the wider political, economic and social context, it’s about structural issues. My research is always about addressing this sense of social injustice,” she says.

Ultimately her work is concerned with “working out how different actors, conditions and strategies lead to the creation and implementation of policy that promotes and protects health equity”. As an example of Professor Friel’s recent Australian Research Council work, she has been challenging the way trade and investment agreements strongly favour business over social and health goals.

“It’s about taking on some of the vested interests. For example, milk powder is a highly profitable commodity. From a health and social equity perspective, breast milk is better.”

According to Professor Friel, academia has an important role to play in producing fairer, healthier policies.

“When it comes to trade negotiations and policymaking, academics are not always the loudest voices, but certainly can offer valuable perspectives,” argues Professor Friel.

“Imagine a win-win scenario - trade policy that pursues not only economic goals but also health goals at the same time. That’s why it is really important that I engage with colleagues in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the World Trade Organisation and regional economic bodies. I’m often making recommendations to the trade negotiators, the economists, the lawyers,” says Professor Friel.

“All of the evidence tells us that a fairer society is a more economically productive society, a healthier society and a more environmentally sustainable society, so if we don’t pay attention to these sorts of inequities, we will widen social inequities and exacerbate environmental degradation.” 




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