Women’s Health Is Less Discussed, Undertreated, and Underfunded

August 30, 2023

What health care marketers can do to bring attention to women’s health disparities.

// By Wendy Margolin //

wendy-margolin-headshotWhen it comes to women’s health, there’s a lack of attention, funding, research, and education. From the moment we start menstruating, it’s a secret. Girls are often embarrassed to tell their mothers, which is partly what makes Judy Blume’s book and recent movie, Are You There, God, It’s Me Margaret, so charming.

When we prepare for birth, we’re taught how to breathe through the pain, to put babies skin-to-skin, and how to protect the umbilical cord during baths. No one tells you that you’ll be sitting on ice or one side for weeks.

Pregnant women are lauded for their natural beauty, like when Olympic athlete Kara Goucher was plastered on billboards as a pregnant runner for Nike. What none of us knew until her recent memoir, The Longest Race: Inside the Secret World of Abuse, Doping, and Deception on Nike’s Elite Running Team, is that she wasn’t paid while pregnant. And she was forced to return to racing too soon after delivery, or she risked violating her Nike contract.

Goucher’s story as a working mom was typical. We should have known. Women are expected to head back to work too soon every day in this country — especially women working manual jobs at hourly wages.

Women’s health is about more than childbearing, and the more we shine a spotlight on the disparities and raise awareness, the sooner we can fund the research needed to support better outcomes and save more women’s lives.

Less Awareness About Women’s Health Means Less Funding for Research

The NIH began recommending using female mice in medical research only in 2015. That means much of what we know about medicine applies to males.

Research focusing only on men can be deadly for women. Men’s heart attacks are associated with pain in the left arm and chest. For women it can be nausea, ingestion, and general discomfort — which are misdiagnosed as heartburn.

Consider the following from McKinsey and Company:

  • Women have been underrepresented in medical trials, which can lead to inaccurate treatment and dosing.
  • Solutions designed for male physiology can mean suboptimal outcomes for women, such as in hip replacements.
  • Women are less likely to be treated for pain when symptoms are deemed “emotional” or “psychosomatic.”

Women have higher rates of death from cardiovascular disease. Two-thirds of those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease are women.

Women suffering from postpartum depression have long been stigmatized. Progress has been slow, but in early August the FDA approved the first oral medication for treatment of postpartum depression, granting the application “Priority Review” and “Fast Track” designation.

Older women in menopause also suffer in silence. We’re half the population, but few of us know what to expect during an inevitable stage of our lives. Only some women know to ask their doctor about hormone therapy. And even then, some doctors will refuse to prescribe it because one study linked it to breast cancer.

There’s less research about diseases affecting women like endometriosis and fibroids. Endometriosis affects 11 percent of women, causing heavy bleeding and extreme cramping. But knowledge gaps persist.

Between 20-70 percent of women will develop fibroids during reproductive years. In a New York Times interview, actress Viola Davis spoke about two surgeries and her eventual hysterectomy for uterine fibroids. She could afford only the first surgery because of her success in the 1996 play Seven Guitars. Before then, she suffered alone. Black women are three times more likely to have uterine fibroids. Significant knowledge gaps about fibroids persist.

What Marketing Teams Can Do to Raise Awareness and Help Address Disparities in Women’s Health

Raising awareness about women’s health needs and reducing health disparities for women requires change across many areas of health care. Health care marketing teams have a part to play.

  • Give the research and stories about women’s health more time and more space. The more donors and organizations know about research and innovation in women’s health, the more likely these initiatives will get funded. Investing in women’s health research is what leads to more positive outcomes.
  • Invest in women’s health education content. In your general health education content, it’s important to distinguish how women’s symptoms differ from men’s. Highlight health education topics that affect only, or affect primarily, women, like preeclampsia, fibroids, autoimmune disease, migraines, thyroid disease, and others.

A TV spot for postpartum products from Frida Mom was rejected from the Oscars in 2020 because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science thought it was too graphic.

In an email to Chelsea Hirschhorn, CEO of Frida, the Academy suggested the company consider a “kinder, more gentle portrayal of postpartum.” (New York Times, Feb. 19, 2020).

The ad is now posted on YouTube and has had more than 6 million views. The last line of the introduction before the commercial starts is: “And we wonder why new moms feel unprepared.”

  • Develop target market personas, based on thoughtful survey initiatives, and be sure you’re reaching everyone you serve in your content.
  • Distribute content where women are most likely to see it. Sharing content everywhere women are means adapting it to Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube.

Women in the U.S. are just over half the population and make 80 percent of health care decisions, yet women’s health is considered a niche market. Improving women’s health has a cascading effect on families and communities. Everyone in health care — including marketing teams — can play a role in improving health care for women.

Why Invest in Women’s Health? The Business Case.

Dr. Chloe E. Bird is Professor of Policy Analysis at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. She oversaw a study in which researchers ran simulations to project return on investment if the NIH doubled its current budget for studies specific to women. In just one example, rheumatoid arthritis, the projected results would be dramatic. “Studies focused on rheumatoid arthritis in women receive just $6 million a year,” Bird writes.” Doubling that would deliver an ROI of 174,000 percent and add $10.5 billion to our economy over the 30-year timespan.

Source: Underfunding of Research in Women’s Health Issues Is the Biggest Missed Opportunity in Health Care

As owner of Sparkr Marketing, Wendy Margolin helps busy health care marketing communications teams create more content. She’s on a mission to build a better medical web, one article at a time. Her favorite form of content is hospital brand journalism, which ties together her 20-year career in journalism, marketing, and health care.