Health communication plays a big role in how women experience healthcare. And poor interactions with health professionals are a major contributor to the gender health gap in the UK (DHSC 2021).
A recent government survey of nearly 100,000 people in England shows that women often feel dismissed by their GPs, who don’t always take their concerns seriously. Women often have to advocate for themselves to get a diagnosis. When they do get one, they have limited chances to talk about treatment options and their choices are sometimes ignored (DHSC 2021).
At Thrive, we believe it is possible to improve women’s health communications and, in turn, help close the gender health gap. To look into this further, we conducted two surveys and multiple focus groups with women in the UK. We learned a lot about what women want and the power of language.
Empathetic language is important
Women told us loud and clear. Poor communication was one of their top five healthcare concerns, along with ‘not being taken seriously’ and ‘a lack of understanding of women’s lives and experiences’.
Women in cities, where ethnic groups are most likely to live, felt health professionals did not understand enough about cultural sensitivities.
This lack of empathy and understanding in health communication directly affects the health and wellbeing of women. More than 60% of women we surveyed reported that their health and wellbeing had been negatively impacted by poor communication and language use (Thrive 2022).
Expert voices need to understand the realities of women’s lives
Women had strong views about the voice and tone of health messaging. They prefer expert-led health information that reflects the complexities and stresses of their everyday lives (Thrive 2021).
Our research found that the NHS website is popular with most women, thanks to the simple but trustworthy quality of its information.
Many in our focus groups, particularly younger women, also made it clear they valued hearing from female health professionals (Thrive 2021). Respondents felt they might be more understanding of women’s everyday lives.
Sharing personal stories leads to emotional connections
While they preferred speaking with female doctors, some women found their advice could still be limited. Women want their specific needs to be served.
For example, non-binary and transgender people can find cis-gendered health information unhelpful. Even the NHS website is too ‘general’ and does not address their unique needs.
Our focus groups and surveys revealed that women typically seek out personal stories on online forums and blogs, by people from a range of backgrounds. They draw comfort and support from the diversity of experiences shared in these online spaces (Thrive 2022).
Talk openly about the realities of women’s bodies (and minds)
Many women’s health issues are talked about in whispers, particularly when they’re to do with sexual, reproductive and mental health.
But our research has shown that women, especially younger women, want to be open. They want their needs to be recognised and addressed.
Our research has shown that painful periods, heavy bleeding and PMS are all common, and very difficult for some women. So they’re fed up with unrealistic, patronising and alienating adverts for period product adverts, which show menstruating women playing tennis or cycling, for example. Using blue ink to indicate menstrual blood was seen as ridiculous and something that compounds period shame.
Many also found it hard to access help or find information about mental health. One focus group respondent talked about how a doctor brushed off her feelings of depression as simply teenage hormones (Thrive 2022).
Empowering and supportive language that honestly portrays the realities of women’s experiences can help us connect with audiences.
Health communication needs to be personal and specific to be effective
Women’s needs are often governed by their life stage. For example, a woman trying to conceive has very different needs and concerns to a menopausal woman.
But these differences are not always understood by health communicators, who run the risk of lumping women into one big group. For example, one woman told us that when she went to her doctor to talk about painful periods, she was told getting pregnant would fix it (Thrive 2022).
Understanding the diversity of women’s needs, their individual life stages and their situations, is essential for effective health communication.
Reach women where they are
Women are not passive recipients. Our research revealed that they actively change the way they consume health content. From Google to Facebook groups, to blogs and apps, women are frequently searching for new ways to get health information.
A 2019 report by Accenture showed that Gen Z women in the US are less likely to go to traditional healthcare sources, such as GPs. Instead, they are turning to digital solutions. They are also active consumers of social media. Our research showed that many are happy to get their health information from Instagram, TikTok or Facebook.
Over three-quarters of the women we surveyed agreed that women’s health and lifestyle brands should provide more health information. But brands have some work to do. Only 3% described the language used by brands as ‘inclusive’ (Thrive 2022). Younger women were more positive about how health and lifestyle brands talk to them, while older women were more likely to use negative terms, such as ‘stereotypical’, ‘patronising’, ‘unrealistic’ and ‘inconsistent’.
So, it’s not just GPs and other health professionals who are responsible for good health communication. Brands also have the chance to engage with audiences in a more meaningful way. They can do so by going beyond the product and providing the overall health information that women clearly need.
Brands can use websites, blogs and social media to reach their audiences in genuine and authentic ways. The digital space helps women to find the personal, relevant information they really need to make decisions about their health.
Gayatri is the Head of mHealth at Thrive. With a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree, she has extensive experience working in global health projects as well as national level programmes such as India’s National AIDS Control Programme.
Over 1,000 women told us what they do and don’t want from health and wellbeing information, we’d like to tell you.
Download our free report: Changing the narrative, to reveal key insights and discover how your brand can leverage content to create empowering connections with women.
Accenture (2019). Today’s consumers reveal the future of healthcare: Digital Health Consumer Survey 2019. www.accenture.com/us-en/insights/health/todays-consumers-reveal-future-healthcare
DHSC (2021). Results of the ‘Women’s health – Let’s talk about it’ survey. www.gov.uk/government/consultations/womens-health-strategy-call-for-evidence/outcome/results-of-the-womens-health-lets-talk-about-it-survey
Thrive (2022). Changing the narrative: Opportunities for health and wellness brands to create empowering connections with women. www.thriveagency.uk/changing-the-narrative-full-report
Thrive (2021). Digital opportunities for women’s wellbeing: How femtech and other digital platforms can overcome barriers to health access. www.thriveagency.uk/digital-opportunities-for-womens-wellbeing