Monday, 2 December 2019
Community Affairs References Committee; Government Response to Report
In respect of the government progress report in response to the recommendations of the Senate Community Affairs References Committee's report Number of women in Australia who have had transvaginal mesh implants and related matters, I move:
That Senate take note of the document.
I have to say I'm very pleased that the government has taken this issue extremely seriously, to the point where they've done another progress report on this particular matter. The committee made 13 recommendations, which I will go to in a moment, but I do also want to note the very significant court case and the result of that court case. It found in favour of the women affected by transvaginal mesh against Johnson & Johnson. The decision was made just a couple of weeks ago, and it affects the lives of many women who were unfortunate enough to have transvaginal mesh. This committee inquiry took evidence that was quite harrowing. In fact, it was very harrowing, because we heard how the women were left in such severe pain. They had debilitating pain—chronic pain—and many of the women who came couldn't sit for very long to give evidence, because of the impact of the mesh. The impact was that severe on them. They were very brave in sharing their experiences and in the campaign that they ran. I can't speak highly enough of the work that they did, and I sincerely congratulate the women who have had this very strong win against Johnson & Johnson about these mesh products.
I want to go very briefly to the progress report by the government. There's been progress made on a number of the recommendations. In fact, some are completed, and that's very pleasing to see. However, I do want to touch on recommendation 13. Recommendation 13 is a very important recommendation, because it goes to the support for the women who are affected by this terrible injustice. It goes to the provision of supports for women affected. For example, in the committee we called for: the provision of information and helplines for women who received transvaginal mesh, so they could contact them for advice on availability of treatments and support services, including financial support programs; specialist counselling programs; and specialist multidisciplinary teams. The progress report articulates that there has been some progress in some states. I'm aware some units—the specialist multidisciplinary units, which are particularly important—have been set up. However, they are not operating at significantly high volume and many women still can't access these services. They're not multidisciplinary. Many women are still finding it difficult to get their records. That's another part of this recommendation. I've had contact from many women who have had transvaginal mesh who have not been able to get support through these multidisciplinary teams. They're not able to access the specialised counselling program—like with so many of these programs where people need counselling, often they don't have specialised counselling. So the people they go to aren't able to offer the sort of expertise necessary for the particular issues.
We're also expecting those clinics to be operating in more areas and at a capacity that actually deals with the number of women that absolutely need this support. They are not going to have their symptoms dealt with. They are not going to be able to get their mesh removed. The issue around removal is extremely complicated, and I note that there's been some training offered from overseas doctors to specialise in that, but there's still a great deal of difficulty in being able to access those particular services.
These are women who were not believed when they first brought these issues up. They were told that it was in their head and that these products couldn't possibly be causing this degree of pain. Now that this is recognised, each of the states and territories needs to be putting in significant resources so that these multidisciplinary units are a reality, that they are working efficiently and effectively, and that no woman who needs and wants treatment and asks for it should be left not being able to access that treatment.
I also rise to take note of the progress report on the Australian government's response to the recommendations of the Senate Community Affairs References Committee report into the number of women in Australia who have had transvaginal mesh implants and related matters. This was an extremely significant inquiry, and I want to thank the senator from Victoria, who has left this place, who put this inquiry forward to good effect, because there was a real need for a support base for political action for women who had suffered injuries as a result of transvaginal and other forms of mesh.
It's good to see, as Senator Siewert said, that the government has in large part accepted the recommendations from this report. However, their response highlights that there is indeed more work to be done. I note, for example, that there's a need for a specific register of these devices, and the government hasn't wholly committed to that. They said they support it in principle but that they needed to make sure it was implementable. I cannot overemphasise how important it is to have a clear and transparent register for these devices.
Senator Siewert acknowledged that there has been a significant court case and many women will be eligible for compensation for the pain and suffering and injury that has been caused through these devices as supplied by Johnson & Johnson. But the issue is that many women don't know which company supplied their devices, in large part, because of the poor record keeping of both hospitals and doctors. So in many cases they don't know what mesh was used and inserted in the surgeries that they had, which makes repair and further surgery even more difficult in assessing the damage that has been done to their bodies.
It's worth noting that it's extremely difficult in terms of trying to support women who've had these devices and who have had adverse outcomes, because they don't show up adequately in ultrasounds and MRIs. There has to be particular specialist procedures in order to really get a handle on how and where the damage has been caused. In fact, those who promoted the devices simply said, 'Look, they will be just like having a healthy body again.' Women were indeed misled by the companies and doctors that promoted these devices. And, as Senator Siewert said, we heard many stories from women who went to their specialists and simply were not believed in relation to the pain and suffering that they were experiencing. So I really want to keep the pressure up on both the state and the Commonwealth governments to see these recommendations implemented in full.
It's very clear that women who have suffered adverse outcomes are not getting adequate support. State and territory governments need to continue to work with the government and the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care to ensure that there are helplines, pain management, proper multidisciplinary support, comprehensive diagnostic and specialist pain management expertise and to ensure that surgeons are trained in the partial or full removal of this mesh where possible. There needs to be advice and practical assistance for people seeking to access their medical records. I also want to make sure that as much support as possible is given to women to access their medical records so that they can participate in any future litigation that takes place so that they can receive fair and just compensation for the significant harms that have been caused to them.
Question agreed to.