Unlocking the potential of communication: Empowering women for optimal health
It is true that health is not valued till sickness comes. In my two decades of experience as a health communicator, I have often noticed that women tend to ignore their health till it’s too late. In this era of a fast-paced lifestyle and busy schedules, most women attribute their physical concerns like bloating, weight gain, indigestion, and other such issues to easily dismissible conditions like PMS. However, these symptoms can be reflective of serious conditions, which only a doctor can diagnose accurately. Hence, at a time when lifestyle diseases are on the rise and environmental factors are causing health concerns, women must take charge and become advocates for their own health. But this is easier said than done.
Challenges faced by women
The World Health Organization recognizes that being a man or a woman significantly impacts health1. The health of girls and women is usually at a disadvantage due to discrimination rooted in sociocultural factors. Further, some other factors include inequitable power distribution between men and women, a decrease in education and employment opportunities, an exclusive focus on women’s reproductive roles, and potential or actual experience of physical, sexual, and emotional violence.
Historically, the wellness of the reproductive system was considered the key to good health in women. In fact, in the 18th and 19th centuries, female hysteria became a common diagnosis for issues such as a fondness for writing, post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, and even infertility2. Even today, when women complain about physical discomfort or pain, their concerns are dismissed as stress or hormone-related issues.
Moreover, many aspects of women’s health are often discussed in hushed tones behind closed doors. Hence, menstruation, sexual health, mental health, and reproductive systems- an important part of women’s health, lack open conversations. The stigma around these health topics creates a sense of embarrassment for women. According to the New York Post, 58% of women feel embarrassed when they are on their periods, and 42% have experienced period shaming3.
This culture of silence is often complicated by a lack of awareness about conditions that almost exclusively affect women such as breast cancer, cervical cancer, and menopause. Moreover, since women are often considered the primary caregivers, they tend to their children and family members first and often forget to prioritize their own health. This leads to late diagnosis of conditions, leading to longer treatment and recovery time.
Education is key to breaking the stigma and raising awareness about these topics. Empowering families to create a positive environment to facilitate open conversations can help both the current and next generation of women take charge of their health.
Lack of data
In this technologically advanced era, data plays an important role in unlocking the power of healthcare. However, the lack of data on women’s health negatively influences health outcomes by creating gaps in the insights that drive research design. In fact, research showed that for every woman diagnosed with a health condition, roughly four go undiagnosed4.
Moreover, gender bias in the medical ecosystem can sometimes even have fatal repercussions. A study found that women are seven times more likely to be misdiagnosed and discharged in the middle of a heart attack5. Therefore, it is important for women’s voices to resonate in the healthcare industry so that they can advocate for their own health issues.
While tackling gender bias is one part of the problem, self-advocacy can help women in the long run. Self-advocacy argues that effective communication, negotiation, or assertion of one’s interests is essential to make their voice heard. It has emerged as the most significant tool to access the care and resources that women need, especially the underserved ones, by helping them combat bias with information6.
As most medical conditions affect men and women differently, it’s important for women to do their research. They must also know their normal so that anything out of the ordinary can be flagged. Enough research will help women assert their needs and ask questions. This will not only give a clearer picture to the medical providers but will also help women take charge of their health.
The road ahead
There is a need for research and insights into women’s health. There should be ample support for community-led initiatives, which will ultimately amplify the voices of women leaders in health policymaking.
Moreover, ensuring diversity and inclusivity in healthcare leadership and fostering partnerships between women, healthcare providers, and policymakers also remain crucial. Measures should be taken to ensure that all voices are heard in the research process, including the allocation of funds especially for women-specific diseases. Since funding often comes down to politics, supporting organizations that are working particularly for the cause can also improve research7.
It's important to know that you are not alone, and moreover, your concerns are real. In this regard, health communicators help in reducing the gap between individuals and innovations in the healthcare arena. By simplifying complex health concepts, they ensure that the right information reaches the right person so that they can make informed decisions about their health. By harnessing the power of the internet and social media, women can gain knowledge from credible sources, connect with other support groups, and reach out to people who are willing to understand their concerns and help. On this International Day of Action for Women’s Health, women must pledge to routinely visit the physician for check-ups. It’s time to listen to your body and reach out to doctors when you feel something is amiss.