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How marketers are balancing the changing trends in women's health

We’ve reached a turning point in the way we view and provide healthcare to women. In the midst of discontent with the way that women are treated in healthcare and the upcoming reveal of the new Women’s Health Strategy in the UK, we’re expecting to see big changes in the women’s health landscape.  In this blog, we discuss these changes and the significance that their influence will have on marketing strategies now and in the future.

What’s new in women’s health?

There are two key trends that have emerged over the past couple of years, that we believe represent a change in the narrative of women’s health.

Firstly has been the conversation around the changes to regulations that allow certain women’s health products to be available over the counter, after a short conversation with a pharmacist, where they would traditionally require a prescription.

Secondly, is the marketing trend of framing women’s health devices and conditions which would typically be seen as a form of healthcare service, as lifestyle or wellbeing products – in the vein of fitness trackers or dietary supplements. This trend is often perpetuated by ‘femtech’ brands, as described in our previous blog: ‘Is femtech the answer to help close the gender health gap?’

The benefits of these trends include making it easier for women to incorporate healthcare into their busy lifestyles by reducing the frequency of routine GP visits and engaging those women who feel dismissed by their GPs and are becoming disillusioned with the healthcare services.

However, could these trends be driving women who are already feeling frustrated in the healthcare system further away from their primary care services? And shouldn’t the focus be on rebuilding the relationship between women and their primary care services?

We want to discuss the conflicting arguments around the apparent move of healthcare services away from the GP surgery and into the home, including what this might mean for marketers.

Women’s health – let’s talk about it

In order to get a sense of the general feelings of women towards the health service, and to inform future health policy, in 2021 the Department for Health and Social Care collected evidence from tens of thousands of UK women in the ‘Women’s health – let’s talk about it’ survey.1

There were several key takeaways that summarise some of the main issues with the health service that are commonly echoed by women:

1. Women have varied levels of confidence in discussing certain topics with their GPs1

While the majority of women (84%) still feel confident talking to their GP about general physical health concerns, these numbers dropped for topics such as menopause (64%) and mental health (59%).

Out of the topics specifically mentioned in the survey (including gynaecological conditions; disability and autism; and menstrual wellbeing), with the exception of gynaecological cancers, the majority of women admitted that they would be more comfortable discussing these topics with their friends than their doctors.

Confidence levels also vary notably by age and ethnicity, with black women in particular being much less likely to rely on their GPs than all other ethnic groups.

2. Women often feel dismissed by their GPs when describing their symptoms1

One of the key revelations of the survey was that the majority of respondents could name at least one occasion where they were not listened to by a healthcare professional. Some of the specific issues listed included symptoms being dismissed, the need for women to persistently advocate for themselves in order to secure a diagnosis and limited opportunity to discuss or express a preference for treatment options.

3. Access to healthcare services is an issue1

Women also described difficulties actually accessing healthcare services in their area, with only 40% of women finding these services easy to access in terms of location and only 24% of women able to conveniently use the services in terms of timing.

With these findings set to inform the upcoming ‘Women’s Health Strategy’, it’s clear we are at a pivotal time for defining what women’s health will look like in the future

Moving medications away from the GP practice

In 2021, with the pandemic leading to people avoiding visiting their GP practice where possible, we saw the first hormonal contraceptives become available for purchase over the counter.2 These were in the form of a progestogen mini pill which would be made available following a short conversation with a pharmacist.

In response to this change in regulations, there are now calls for other medications such as hormone replacement therapy (HRT), a medication used to provide relief from the symptoms of menopause, to follow suit.3

The obvious benefit of this would be the added convenience for busy women, who as revealed in the women’s health survey may be struggling with access to GP services. Another argument in favour is that the spreading of the workload between GPs and pharmacists will free up what can be seen as inconvenient and unnecessary GP appointments in order to address the backlog.4

However, the worry is that we are removing one of the major touchpoints that many women have with their GPs. Even a short check-up appointment before renewing a pill prescription can give women some time with their regular doctor. This could provide an opportunity to voice health concerns or give their HCP the chance to pick up on any major red flags.

What changes are we seeing in the way that women’s health is marketed?

The changing attitudes of women towards healthcare services has even reached the marketing strategies of major brands – particularly in the femtech industry.

Although not a new phenomenon, we have recently seen a resurgence in the idea of the ‘medicalisation of women’s health’ being called into question, primarily amongst feminist groups.5 This refers to the treatment of natural processes such as menstruation or menopause as ‘medical problems’ that require a solution.

In 2022, this is materialising as a shift in marketing where products that would be previously seen as medical are now being marketed as ‘lifestyle and wellbeing products’. An example of this ‘demedicalisation’ of women’s health can be seen in the way that the Natural Cycles brand market their digital contraceptive devices, with emphasis on the ‘no hormones’ benefit and taglines like ‘Skip the pharmacy, no prescription needed’.6

This approach to marketing is proving successful too. Femtech brand Elvie made a big impact in the industry with their pelvic floor 7 training device. In a notable departure from existing, clinical looking devices, the Elvie trainer is packaged like a luxury tech product and incorporates features like gamification to encourage women to make pelvic floor exercises a part of their daily routine. The device was a massive success, revolutionising compliance for pelvic floor exercises compared to it’s predecessors and is now even used by the NHS.7-12

Elvie have also gained a great deal of attention recently with their latest #LeaksHappen marketing campaign that aims to break the taboos surrounding urinary incontinence.

Their giant ‘peeing’ billboard is shining a spotlight on a very common health issue for women after social media platform censorship. The aim of this is to encourage women to speak out and take action to solve the problem.

Elvie as a company is a great example of a brand trying to build a rapport with women, aiming to make difficult topics easier to talk about – which is a contrast to the opinions we are seeing on primary care.

(Image from Elvie)

Can healthcare marketing turn the tide?

The recent trends and upcoming changes to UK health policy indicate that we are facing a make-or-break moment for women’s trust in healthcare.

While the new marketing strategies discussed in this blog have proved successful in engaging women, it is still going to be important to rebuild women’s faith in the healthcare system. Likewise, while introducing more over-the-counter women’s health products may be more convenient for women, this should form part of a cohesive approach to healthcare, with pharmacists and GPs working together to meet the needs of women, rather than a move away from regular GP visits.

The new Women’s Health Strategy is to be published sometime during the spring, and with the focus on women’s health needs throughout all of the life stages – it’s likely that there will be an emphasis on primary care, including regular interactions with a family GP.13

We hope that these new updates in policy will go some way to addressing the problem, having surveyed real women for their opinions – something long overdue. However, marketing strategy will also play an important role. This is a great opportunity for marketers to follow suit in taking the views of women into account, producing content and marketing materials that show awareness of women’s concerns whilst also promoting the benefits in primary care services to women.

Regardless, it will be interesting to see whether the ‘demedicalisation’ of women’s health will hold, with certain areas of reproductive and women’s health remaining in the ‘lifestyle and wellness category’. Or if we can start to repair the damaged relationship between women and their primary care services, bringing women back to the GP surgery.

For more content on women’s health, marketing best practice and digital healthcare, visit our blog.

References

  1. Department of Health and Social Care. Results of the ‘Women’s Health – Let’s talk about it’ survey . GOV UK. Resource. Published December 23, 2021. Accessed March 29, 2022.
  2. Lucy Parsons. MHRA approves over-the-counter contraceptive pill. PharmaTimesResource. Published July 9, 2021. Accessed September 21, 2021.
  3. Shaw I. HRT could be made available over the counter without a GP prescription. Pulse TodayResource. Published February 2, 2022. Accessed March 29, 2022.
  4. Russell P. Pandemic demands and care backlog in GP practices ‘simply not sustainable’. GuidelinesResource. Published January 31, 2022. Accessed March 29, 2022.
  5. Meyer VF. The medicalization of menopause: Critique and consequences. Int J Heal Serv. 2001;31(4):769-792. Resource. Accessed March 31, 2022.
  6. Natural Cycles. Hormone-Free Birth Control. Resource. Accessed March 29, 2022.
  7. Elvie. Elvie Trainer. Resource. Accessed November 3, 2021.
  8. Price N, Dawood R, Jackson SR. Pelvic floor exercise for urinary incontinence: a systematic literature review. Maturitas. 2010;67(4):309-315. Resource. Accessed March 31, 2022.
  9. Gillard S, Shamley D. Factors motivating women to commence and adhere to pelvic floor muscle exercises following a perineal tear at delivery: the influence of experience. J Assoc Chart Physiother Women’s Heal. 2010;106:5-18. Resource. Accessed March 31, 2022.
  10. Porta Roda O, Díaz López MA, Vara Paniagua J, Simó González M, Díaz Bellido P, Espinós Gómez JJ. Adherence to pelvic floor muscle training with or without vaginal spheres in women with urinary incontinence: a secondary analysis from a randomized trial. Int Urogynecol J. 2016;27(8):1185-1191. Resource. Accessed March 31, 2022.
  11. Hagen S, Elders A, Stratton S, et al. Effectiveness of pelvic floor muscle training with and without electromyographic biofeedback for urinary incontinence in women: multicentre randomised controlled trial. BMJ. 2020;371. Resource. Accessed March 1, 2022.
  12. Elvie. Elvie and the NHS. Resource. Accessed November 3, 2021.
  13. Dixon S, McNiven A, Connolly A, Hinton L. Women’s health and primary care: time to get it right for the life course. Br J Gen Pract. 2021;71(713):536-537. Resource. Accessed March 31, 2022.

1st April 2022

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