Limited access to pregnancy-related care putting students’ health at risk

AMBIGUITY about entitlements to health services are leaving some female international students with no pregnancy-related care in the first 12 months of their stay in Australia. Vivian Tan reports.

Graphic: Tania Candido

Ambiguities within the Overseas Students Health Cover (OSHC) are restricting some international students’ access to pregnancy-related care, according to a paper released by the Multicultural Centre for Womens Health (MCWH).

International students must purchase OSHC as part of their student visa condition to cover the medical costs accrued during their stay in Australia. Minimum requirements that are covered by the OSHC are outlined in the OSHC Deed, a legal agreement between the Federal Government and registered private health insurers.

However, the OSHC Deed fails to take into account some of the potential health risks which international students may be exposed to in the first year of their stay in Australia, in particular pregnancy-related risks.

One student told me her friend had an unwanted pregnancy and didn’t know where to get help… If she had known where to get help, maybe she’d have had more options, but she felt she had no choice. – Chao Bao-Tran

Since July 2011, changes to the OSHD Deed have allowed insurers to set a 12-month waiting period for non-emergency pregnancy-related services. It does not, for instance explicitly recognise labour as a condition that requires emergency treatment, meaning the interpretation is left up to insurers and health service providers.

There have been reports of pregnant international students being refused hospital admission despite having the OSHC because the hospital deemed them ‘ineligible patients’.

Related story: Calls for better hospital access for international students

In 2010, there were 218,373 female international students on a student visa, or 46.5 per cent of Australia’s international student population.

Dr Regina Quiazon of MCWH stresses that the problem mainly exists because the international student population is mostly comprised of young people.

“It’s not just because they’re international students. The 18 to 25 year old age group is when people start becoming sexually active”, she explained.


In their first twelve months in Australia, female international students are more likely to engage in unprotected sex, and face higher risk of unplanned pregnancies.

According to MCWH, this is due to factors affecting their ability to make informed decisions about sexual and reproductive health, which include the lack of social supports, financial difficulties, social isolation and lack of access to culturally appropriate health information and services.

Masters student Chao Bao-Tran, who undertook research for MCWH, said many international students simply did not know what to do when faced with an unwanted pregnancy, because they have no one to turn to for help.

“One student told me her friend had an unwanted pregnancy and didn’t know where to get help. Because she couldn’t tell her parents she terminated the pregnancy, but the student didn’t know how her friend had done it or how much it had cost her. If she had known where to get help, maybe she’d have had more options, but she felt she had no choice.” she said.

MCWH executive director Dr Adele Murdolo added that the need for change to the OSHC Deed “is ultimately not just about pregnancy and birth but encompasses a whole range of issues relevant to students’ lives, including the right to access comprehensive information about contraception and abortion, and the right to access health services in Australia.”

“We need to ensure that international students and their families have access to affordable medical and hospital treatment while studying in Australia,”  Dr Murdolo said.

 Related story: Where to go when you need advice on sexual health

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