Women and their health are subjects close to our hearts. We speak to one of our Associate Directors, Adele Hayes, about her passion for women’s access to healthcare and information, and representation. Adele is currently working on two campaigns that address important issues in women’s health.
Of course, there are many therapy areas within women’s health that need to be prioritised from a public health and policy perspective – from fertility and menstruation to mental health. In my experience, there are a few key things that stand out in healthcare PR.
Firstly, the under-representation of women in health promotion materials. For example, looking at cardiovascular health we see many images of men and very few of women even though heart disease is the number one killer of women in the UK1, killing twice as many women as breast cancer.
Secondly, both in my professional and personal life, I see a lack of discussion around topics that were once considered taboo, for example menopause is something that affects so many women and can have a real impact on their lives and work but isn’t often talked about. We need to be open and honest about periods, menopause and miscarriage – among our friends and families, as well as in the workplace, to help raise awareness and hopefully send a message to all women that they are not alone.
What I find really interesting is that, because of the way our health is discussed and portrayed, it can sometimes be difficult for women to recognise symptoms as a problem and seek the help they need. Symptoms can be synonymous with simply ‘being a woman’. Consider period pain or fatigue in pregnancy – these are health issues that women expect, accept, and then are expected to get on with.
Here in the UK, it’s possible to complete four years of GP Specialty Training without doing a gynaecology rotation. So, I worry that symptoms can be overlooked, not always taken seriously by women themselves or their primary healthcare professional. This is why campaigns like ‘Be an Iron Mum’, which we developed for Vifor Pharma, are so important.
Gender biases including underrepresentation of pregnant women in clinical trials is another key issue, with some studies reporting that 98% of drugs do not have sufficient data to support dosing for pregnant women and women who are breastfeeding. 2 It is good news that we are beginning to see more debate in this area.
These are really big, societal issues that require fundamental change in healthcare and education. It is our responsibility to recognise where communication can play a role in that.
When it comes to the issue of representation, we can push our clients to make sure they really understand their audience and are including women. We need to create campaigns about women’s health that don’t shy away from difficult topics, and address any stigmas front and centre. Real-life women’s stories – which are diverse, personal and varied from woman to woman – are the only way to realistically convey the impact that conditions can have. Let’s speak plainly and be authentic about women’s health. A great example of this is when adverts show blood rather than blue liquid when discussing periods.
Agencies like our can also play a really important role in creating communities, which can help give women ‘permission’ to discuss and prioritise their own health. The rise of social media and working alongside influencers is helping us share these true stories and expand our reach, making it easier to connect women’s stories to women.
I do think that we speak up about the inequalities in women’s health more than we used to, and while change may not happen as quickly as we might hope, we are going in the right direction.
I think Bodyform’s Wombstories campaign is awesome, encouraging honest conversations and education about women’s reproductive health. It’s a great example of a wider feminist movement that is trying to challenge the traditional narratives about periods and reproductive health, which could create unrealistic expectations, delay diagnoses, and impact women’s mental health.
I am very proud to have worked on two iron deficiency campaigns in women’s health – one in pregnancy & peripartum and the other one in heavy menstrual bleeding. Not only did I learn a lot about my own health and the risks of being iron deficient, but I feel now equipped to advise and support a lot of my friends who may have been suffering for years (or months in pregnancy) unnecessarily. When you work in healthcare communications, there is something very special about working on projects that target not a specific disease and patient group, but an entire population – 9 in 10 women are at risk of iron deficiency in pregnancy, that says something.
In our work, we are understandably most focussed on specific disease – from recognising symptoms to diagnosis and treatment. I would love to see the industry, and in turn agencies, creating campaigns that address women’s health over the course of their lives.
For example, how are young women accessing information about their health and what are the gaps in their understanding? Among older women, what are the barriers for seeking help and information around menopause? Are risk factors during pregnancy truly understood? The more we understand and have a holistic view on women’s behaviours when it comes to their health, the more we can support women to recognise symptoms, speak to their health professional and get support when it’s needed. And the more authentic, effective, and meaningful our communications can be.
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