Ministry of Health to close provincial women’s health agency

TheStar.com – healthzone
4 August 2012.   Megan Ogilvie

The Ministry of Health is shuttering the provincial agency charged with improving women’s health in Ontario.

In place of the standalone institution, the ministry says it plans to incorporate women’s health into a new research program and has identified it as a priority.

Echo: Improving Women’s Health in Ontario (Echo) has eight months to wrap up its projects, including one that is working to set provincial standards of care for women who suffer from postpartum depression.

The agency is scheduled to close March 2013.

The ministry’s move, quietly announced to women’s health researchers six weeks ago, is concerning to some experts who see Echo’s elimination as part of a national trend that has seen funds for women’s health programs slashed or cut off all together.

Earlier this year, the federal government announced that it would stop funding the Women’s Health Contribution Program, which supports the work of four research centres and two communications networks across the country.

Others say the province’s move to scrap Echo is a potential positive — but only if the province follows through on its promise to fully integrate women’s health into its policy research agenda.

“If the provincial government does what it claims it is going to do, which is introduce a sex- and gender-based analysis in all research and all policy, that will be an improvement,” said Dr. Donna Stewart, chair of women’s health at the University Health Network and the University of Toronto.

“However, the danger of course is that this is a way of soothing concerns about the closing of Echo and not very much will happen. Only time will tell.”

In a letter to women’s health stakeholders dated June 29, Dr. Vasanthi Srinivasan, assistant deputy minister in the health system strategy and policy division, outlined the “significant changes” coming to women’s health research in Ontario.

The introduction of a new fund for health policy research, called the Health System Research Fund Program Awards, meant the role for Echo “is coming to an end,” the letter said. Echo also acts as the ministry’s provincial adviser on women’s health.

Applications for the fund will be peer-reviewed, and proposals are required to include, where appropriate, an analysis of how their research will take into account sex and gender issues.

Through the fund, the ministry will provide up to $65 million over three years for policy-related research. Women’s health is one of 12 strategic priorities for the fund.

Health Minister Deb Matthews told the Star that while the ministry remains committed to “the issue of gender equity around health access and health outcomes” there are good reasons to change how women’s health research is funded in the province.

“The most important reason is that we’ll be able to spend more money on research and less on administration,” she said, adding the new fund takes a holistic approach to women’s health issues.

“We’ll have a gender lens on all research where that is applicable. We are taking the ideals of Echo and spreading them right across the whole research portfolio.”

Echo was established in 2007 but was not up and running until the fiscal year 2009-2010. It grew out of the Ontario Women’s Health Council, which operated under the provincial Progressive Conservative government of the time.

Women’s health researchers largely agree the lasting legacy of the two agencies is the POWER (Project for an Ontario Women’s Health Evidence-based Report) Study, which launched 10 years ago and released its concluding chapter in March.

Among the many findings of its groundbreaking research — the most comprehensive study of women’s health ever done in the province — is that health inequities are costing both lives and money. For example, the researchers estimated there would be 230,000 fewer people with disabilities if Ontario had an equitable health-care system.

“It has become a vital resource for researchers, educators and policy makers,” said Terry Bisset, Echo’s executive director. She said the agency is working closely with the ministry to ensure its many projects and resources will still be used and accessible after its doors close next year. Currently, Echo has 11 full-time staff members.

Jane Pepino, who created the Ontario Women’s Health Council and chaired the organization from 1997 to 2007, said those interested in women’s health must continue to be vigilant because “dollars are shrinking everywhere.”

She said the ministry’s move to transfer funds from Echo to a research pool that prioritizes women’s health is wise, given the growing scarcity of health-care dollars.

“From that perspective, I think there is a silver lining in this,” said Pepino, who is currently chair of the board at Women’s College Hospital.

Still, she said, assurances are needed that the new research fund will address sex and gender issues “in a meaningful way instead of just lip service.”

“It’s going to take rigor, it’s going to take thought, and it will take some deep digging on those who review the grants and on those who apply for those grants.”

Joy Johnson, scientific director of the Institute of Gender and Health, which is a part of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, said that while the province should get credit for incorporating women’s health into its new research agenda, women should also be concerned about the elimination of Echo.

“They should continue to pressure the ministry to deliver on its promise,” said Johnson, who is also a professor in the school of nursing at the University of British Columbia. “That promise is to mainstream gender concerns within the government. That’s what they said they’d do. That’s what we need to hold them account to do.”

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