Improving women’s health requires engagement across the ecosystem

Updated on December 3, 2023

Women’s health and wellness is gaining visibility through the Biden Administration recent announcement of the first-ever White House Initiative on Women’s Health Research, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services establishing a National Women’s Health Week and various coalitions recognizing National Women’s Health Month in May. But data shows despite this focus, female-identifying patients are still likely to experience less attention from caregivers, less investment in their health needs, and sometimes less comprehensive care.

There are many studies that have examined this topic with some concerning results:

  • According to Harvard Health, women wait longer for pain relief. It was revealed that during emergency visits, female patients are more likely to be prescribed sedatives over analgesics and, in some cases, are half as likely to be offered pain medication as male patients even after the same procedure.
  1. In cases where female patients receive care, the cost is greater than their male counterparts, according to a 2021 paper in the Journal of Women’s Health.
  2. The CDC reported in August of 2023 that 1 in 5 women reported mistreatment when receiving maternity care.

With the challenges in women’s healthcare reaching across so many areas, addressing them will require an ecosystem-wide approach. Health plans undoubtedly have a role in championing equitable and evidence-based treatments and understanding.

Female-identifying members compose just over half of the payer population. Improving female experiences will require targeted efforts to reach them and the development of effective methods of supporting their healthcare journeys. The scaling of care management – improving education and changing behavior – can positively impact outcomes for both women and the loved ones they support.

Today many health plans are running lean care management organizations. Tools and content to drive this scale must be proven to genuinely resonate with underserved populations, like female-identifying members, but also to have analytic data to show that their tools drive behavior change and member satisfaction.

The approach for payer care management is evolving to meet the member where and how they want and on their schedule. To fully support this population, health plans must also be more inclusive in how their outreach looks and sounds to their members. Is the language used in materials gender-neutral and gender equitable, for example?

Members and patients who may confront health and wellness issues traditionally categorized as “women’s health” may not specifically identify that way and all female patients should receive as much guidance and support as male patients. When outreach is more inclusionary it will reach and engage more people.

McKinsey highlights that payers may derive more value in their programs if they treat their members like consumers. They suggest that this includes leveraging “multiple channels” for member outreach. Further, healthcare tools would be most effective if they don’t add to female members’ mental workload.

It’s also important to understand how busy many women are. They may be holding multiple roles, from parenting younger children to acting as a caregiver for older parents, while also working outside the home.

As someone who works on these solutions, I see how valuable inclusive member engagement can be. As a woman, I am sensitive to how supporting women’s healthcare can drive change, but only if it engages us where we are, as equals, and is put in context so that it is relevant and more likely to be acted upon.

There are many considerations for payers in selecting approaches and tools that enable their organizations to contribute to advancing women’s healthcare in a meaningful way. In particular, payers have an opportunity to become a larger voice in this conversation and drive more equitable care through member outreach, care management and provider awareness efforts.

Here are four considerations managed care providers can examine when engaging female-identifying members:

  1. Demystify and empathize
    Using engagement and education solutions can help patients understand and prepare for procedures or processes. As an example anyone who’s gone through cervical cancer screening knows, it’s not the most pleasant experience. But patient education prior to the procedure can help to normalize it and demystify what is happening. Materials that empathize with patients over any fear that they might have when they’re going into a clinical setting can provide balance. For example, this cancer screening is a very short procedure that has a long term and beneficial impact on your health and wellbeing.
  2. Tackle social determinants of health on the small scale
    Female patients already face challenges accessing care. That compounds for patients facing limited resources or societal barriers to health access from systemic racism. While it isn’t in the power of one caregiver or care manager to fix an entire social system, smaller-scale outreach and education can impact individual patients and members who need assistance with transportation, scheduling, and costs. 

Other ways to help include recommending transportation options and connecting them with services that can mitigate costs to help ensure they keep their appointments.

3. Empower decision-making
Women know their bodies best and a key element of member engagement is giving patients the language and confidence to speak up when they have questions about a diagnosis or treatment. This is especially important for female patients and is a practice that can help them avoid potentially dangerous and costly repeated health problems down the road.

4. No taboo topics
Normalizing discussion around topics like menopause or mental health struggles and what a member is experiencing require straightforward discussions. Yes, some health care professionals may be uncomfortable, but these discussions are critical. The goal should be to help educate people in a way that helps patients understand their body and what is going on with it.

Adopting this guidance along with patient education solutions that put a focus on diversity and women’s health issues, payers can take a strong step to help making healthcare more impactful and equal for women. 

Allison Combs
Allison Combs
Head of Product-Payer Clinical Effectiveness at Wolters Kluwer Health

Allison Combs is Head of Product-Payer Clinical Effectiveness for Wolters Kluwer Health.