Families - a vital but often forgotten health care provider

Think Family? Think Health | National Policy Forum
19 July 2021

Good health is built, maintained, protected, and supported by families. Yet families are vastly overlooked in initiatives to promote population health and health equity.

The COVID-19 pandemic has helped reveal the influence of families on health and prompted a conversation about how we can better support them.

“Social support is probably the single most important health protective factor that there is. But it's not paid. And it's not visible – particularly in how we design healthcare systems,” says Professor Lyndall Strazdins, Director of RSPH.

The pandemic has highlighted this. When social support systems were disrupted through lockdowns and border restrictions, a huge acceleration in mental health problems followed. And it’s not just mental health that families and social networks care for. They help prevent and recover from physical illness, communicate health messaging, check the welfare of relatives and friends, provide nutrition, and advocate for health within “established” healthcare systems such as hospitals and GPs.

Family relationships have been linked to childhood outcomes in diabetes, asthma, obesity, development, mental health, and behavioural disorders. In adults, they are linked to health outcomes including hypertension, diabetes mood, anxiety, substance use, dementia and physical decline. It is clear that families directly contribute to health outcomes. But it isn’t noticed, or costed. And it should be.

When public health initiatives are made, or when a policy is recommended, they tend to focus on individuals, or society as a whole. Thus miss a crucial piece of the health care puzzle. This is reflected by our health economics as well, where once again, our decision making ignores the role of families.

“I think it's intrinsically valued, but how do we make it more extrinsically valued?” asks say Professor Emily Lancsar, Head, Department of Health Services Research and Policy.

“Putting a monetary value on the benefits that are generated through the family would help. If we're capturing costs on families, and also the benefits generated by families, we will make better decisions.”

To do this, however, we need to recast our economic theory so it’s not just built on the individual, but the household or family. We also need data that captures family metrics to form a basis for economic decisions.

The first step to valuing families in our health care system is to acknowledge and make visible the fundamental work they do, according to Strazdins.

“We also need to empower families as the health producers of the nation. They are building the health of the next generation, even while they look after the health of the current generation,” says Strazdins.


This is a brief summary of a discussion hosted by the Research School of Population Health in partnership with Families Australia. You can view a recording of this discussion here, featuring:

Dr Brian Babington, CEO Families Australia, Forum Facilitator

Professor Lyndall Strazdins, Director of the Research School of Population Health

Professor Emily Lancsar, Head of the Department of Health Services Research and Policy, Associate Dean (Policy and Practice) College of Health and Medicine

Professor Emeritus Cathy Banwell

Dr Christine Heyes LaBond, Research Fellow, Research School of Population Health

You can find out about future policy forums by contacting Families Australia.