1PhD candidate, RMIT University and Social Worker, Mercy Hospital for Women
International students in Australia, while recognised for enriching the nation culturally and considered crucially important to the economy because of the revenue they generate, are ineligible for the national universal health scheme (Medicare) and must hold private Overseas Student Health Care (OSHC) insurance as a condition of their visa. The stated purpose of OSHC is covering students for public health care to a similar level provided by Medicare for Australian citizens and permanent residents, with ‘no or minimal’ cost to Australian taxpayers. However, my practice experience as a public maternity hospital social worker suggests that the reality is often very different. Pregnant international students who need to obtain basic but essential public health care services- such as maternity or paediatric care- frequently find that they are not covered for their costs. This is the situation of hundreds of students in Victoria and around Australia each year- especially since 2011, when companies licenced to sell private health insurance to international students were permitted to introduce a 12-month waiting-period for pregnancy-related care. Even students who have completed the waiting-period can discover that ‘extras’, such as ultrasounds or medications recommended by their doctor or midwife, are not covered. Hospitals set their own fees and charges, and some require substantial ‘up-front’ payment before care is provided.
This qualitative study is the first social work practitioner research in Victoria aiming to improve the information, services and supports available to future international students. A major focus of semi-structured interviews with women international students will be gaining insight into their challenges in accessing local public health services, and also the services and information they find most helpful. Women’s recommendations for better care of future students will be sought, and then reported back to key ‘stakeholder’ agencies and professionals who provide support and information to international students.
Jane Middleton is a PhD candidate at RMIT University. She has worked for many years as a social worker at one of Melbourne’s major public maternity hospitals – the Mercy Hospital for Women – including 13 years as Manager of the Social Work Department from 2003-2016. During this time Jane has developed a particular interest in the barriers experienced by socially vulnerable women in accessing public health care. She has worked with scores of women international students during pregnancy and after the birth of their babies.
Although international students in Australia are required to hold private health insurance, Jane’s practice experience is that many students encounter great difficulty when attempting to obtain necessary public health services for themselves and for their babies. This has provided the impetus for the qualitative research study she is now undertaking for her PhD thesis: Pregnant, parenting and a long way from home: international students in Victoria accessing public maternity, paediatric and early parenting care.
Jane has previously conducted and published qualitative research focussing on rural Aboriginal health workers’ perceptions of their clients’ needs when they are transferred to major metropolitan hospitals for specialist maternity and paediatric care.