Let’s be honest. We all do it, right? When faced with a lingering ache or mysterious lump, we race online to seek out answers. In fact, these days, it’s hard to find a person who doesn’t turn to the internet or social media for answers about their health.
From Google to Facebook groups, the internet is always there, with pages of revealing information and first-hand views presented as facts. And it’s only once we’ve achieved a satisfactory self-diagnosis, or been sufficiently spooked, that we might finally seek the opinion of a health professional.
It’s a common behaviour, but recent research has shown that women are taking this phenomenon to a whole new level.
Why women turn to the internet for health advice
In response to the gender health gap that exists in England, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) commissioned the ‘Women’s Health – Let’s talk about it’ survey in 2021, which surveyed over 100,000 people.
It found that 71% of respondents relied on Google search and 69% on online search engines and blogs as a source of health information, even ahead of GPs and healthcare professionals. So why is Dr Google so popular? Why are women turning to the internet even though there may be concerns about the quality and trustworthiness of the information?
We know that the gender data gap means that healthcare is heavily skewed towards men. Could this mean that women are actively searching for new ways to have their health needs more fully served?
To understand this further, Thrive surveyed over 1,000 women in the UK about their views and experiences of accessing and receiving healthcare. We supplemented the findings from our survey with insights generated from eight focus groups.
We learned that there were several psychosocial and systemic factors at play, all pushing women to look beyond the existing healthcare system for support.
Psychosocial factors affecting women’s healthcare experiences
Feelings of embarrassment
A Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) survey found that 24% of women feel unable to seek care because they are embarrassed (2019).
Thrive’s own survey found that sexual health and mental health topped the list of health topics women are embarrassed to talk to health professionals about. Other topics include:
• weight gain
• eating disorders
• gynaecological issues
• bowel issues
The RCOG survey also found that 24% of women feel unable to seek care because they’re embarrassed about their bodies and 15% feel unable to seek care due to feeling judged.
For these reasons, perhaps women find the internet is a more discreet and easy-to-access source of information and answers to their healthcare questions.
Poor interactions with health systems
Studies show that women’s interactions with health systems often leave them feeling dismissed and misunderstood.
According to Thrive’s survey, women’s top five concerns with healthcare are:
1. not being taken seriously
2. lack of understanding of women’s lives and experiences
3. lack of understanding of female bodies
4. poor communication
5. lack of access to appointments and specialist services
In our focus group discussions, women talked in detail about how they felt their concerns were often dismissed.
One woman recalled the numerous visits she had to make to her doctor to get a diagnosis for her painful periods. Another was horrified when her doctor suggested that getting pregnant would fix her painful periods. A young woman in our group described how she was told by her doctor that the signs of depression she was experiencing were simply due to teenage hormones and she’d grow out of them.
These experiences are difficult but not uncommon. In a 2021 press release, the UK government revealed that it takes an average of seven to eight years for women to receive a diagnosis of endometriosis, with 40% of women needing ten or more GP appointments before being referred to a specialist.
It’s clear that many women are feeling dismissed and disillusioned by their experience of the healthcare service. Are these interactions pushing them to the internet for answers?
Systemic factors affecting the quality of women’s healthcare
There’s clearly a lack of easily accessible and reliable information women can access about their health. The DHSC (2021) survey found that only 17% of women in the UK felt they had enough information on menstrual wellbeing. Only 14% knew enough about gynaecological cancers, and just 9% of women felt that they had enough information about menopause.
Even when women do access care, they are faced with health systems that lack the know-how and deep understanding they need. One reason for this is that women are typically underrepresented in clinical trials (Bierer BE et al 2022) and as a result, healthcare professionals don’t know enough about how health conditions affect men and women differently, and about conditions that only affect women.
A recent European-wide study of chronic pain in men and women found that women experience more pain than men (Bimpong et al. 2022) and yet women get prescribed less pain medication than men after identical procedures. Women are also less likely to be admitted to hospital when they complain of chest pain; and are more likely than men to be undertreated for pain by doctors (Hoffmann and Tarzian 2001).
How women use the web to serve their health needs
The women we surveyed value expert-led health information. However, of almost equal importance is health information that ‘understands the complexities of women’s lives and experiences’. This finding is in keeping with Thrive’s (2021) research on how women engage with digital health platforms.
Where there are knowledge gaps in women’s health, women rely on learning from the experiences of women like them. In our focus group discussions, women talked about joining Facebook groups and other online forums searching for women in similar situations. Others said that they often shared relatable video content from TikTok, using it to start conversations about their health issues.
Trusted health content… can the internet really deliver?
Women are discerning consumers of health information. Facing a health system stacked against them, the internet provides them with the opportunity to have their needs served quickly. And with 22% of women in the Thrive survey saying that they were just too busy to attend appointments, time matters.
Search engines serve up potential solutions without bias or judgement, while social media provides the opportunity to access real experiences.
Expertise and experience still count but the accessibility of health information is also key. Our research showed that women use the internet in a sophisticated manner, making assessments on the quality of information all the time. Several studies suggest that they make trust judgments online based on usability and navigability far more than men (Battineni et al 2020). They also highly value transparency of motive, consistency of information and advice, and information delivered without adverts (Lupton & Maslen 2019 and Bidmon & Terlutter 2015).
Crucially for healthcare brands, insights from our focus groups reveal that voice, language and tone all play an important role in determining the trustworthiness of online information.
And once trust is built, women will often become regular users (Kim 2016).
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.
Battineni G et al (2020). Factors affecting the quality and reliability of online health information. DIGITAL HEALTH, 6, p.205520762094899.
Bidmon S and Terlutter R (2015). Gender Differences in Searching for Health Information on the Internet and the Virtual Patient-Physician Relationship in Germany: Exploratory Results on How Men and Women Differ and Why. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 17(6), p.e156.
Bierer BE et al (2022). Advancing the inclusion of underrepresented women in clinical research. Cell Reports Medicine 3(4); https://doi.org/10.1016/j.xcrm.2022.100553
Bimpong K et al (2022). The Gender Pain Gap: gender inequalities in pain across 19 European countries. Scand J Public Health . 2022 Mar;50(2):287-294. doi: 10.1177/1403494820987466. Epub 2021 Feb 10. https://doi.org/10.1177/1403494820987466
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DHSC (2021). Government launches call for evidence to improve health and wellbeing of women in England. www.gov.uk/government/news/government-launches-call-for-evidence-to-improve-health-and-wellbeing-of-women-in-england
Hoffmann D and Tarzian AJ (2001). The Girl Who Cried Pain: A Bias Against Women in the Treatment of Pain, Faculty Scholarship. 145. digitalcommons.law.umaryland.edu/fac_pubs/145
Kim, Y (2016). Trust in health information websites: A systematic literature review on the antecedents of trust. Health Informatics Journal, 22(2), pp.355–369.
Lupton, D. and Maslen, S. (2019). How Women Use Digital Technologies for Health: Qualitative Interview and Focus Group Study. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 21(1), p.e11481.
RCOG (2019). Better for women: Improving the health and wellbeing of girls and women. www.rcog.org.uk/media/h3smwohw/better-for-women-full-report.pdf
Thrive (2021). Digital opportunities for women’s wellbeing How femtech and other digital platforms can overcome barriers to health access. www.thriveagency.uk
Thrive (2022). Opportunities for health and wellness brands to create empowering connections with women. www.thriveagency.uk