A recent article about Dr. Jen Gunter — an internet-famous OB-GYN working to empower women by deploying clinical facts with brazen sass — got me thinking about how healthcare brands speak to us.
“Patient empowerment” is a shiny new buzzword in healthcare. I think most would agree that this is a generally positive trend. It’s driving more equitable access to information and better collaboration between patients and providers. But it also has unintended side effects.
Healthcare companies, I’m looking at you. Brands are trying really, really hard to relate to people who don’t have deep health literacy. On the whole, efforts to simplify medical content are well-intentioned. But, unfortunately, the end result often comes across as paternalistic. Healthcare is an inherently vulnerable experience. Even in the most positive situations, you’re still talking about your life or the life of someone you care about. In those moments, the worst thing you can do is make somebody feel marginalized or talked down to.
Take, for example, prenatal care. Want to visit the 1950s? Start paying attention to content targeted to pregnant folks … oh what an ecstatic, magical experience! I’m a nesting goddess with adorable cravings! I suspect that many of the people developing these ads and products have never had an honest conversation with a pregnant person. (And, no, reading a few chapters of What to Expect doesn’t count.)
The reality of pregnancy can be wonderful and it can be messy, painful, confusing, and challenging. Pregnancy is running to the bathroom to vomit in-between meetings. It’s swollen ankles and heartburn and intense fatigue. For many people, it’s also inextricable from infertility and loss. I’ve yet to see a branded campaign that navigates this in a sensitive and honest way. (Please prove me wrong! 🙏)
There’s also a new wave of fertility companies that have caught fempowerment fever. The narrative goes something like this: “You’re so empowered because you’re a modern career woman. You don’t have time right now to have a baby, but you’re smart enough to plan ahead. So freeze your eggs for your future self!” Can I just say — on behalf of childless women of reproductive age — this is offensive. At its core, this promotional strategy capitalizes on the age-old idea that a woman’s manifest destiny is to bear children.
Underneath the facade of empowerment lies a darker message of shame and fear. I am all for educating women about their reproductive options, but creating dumbed-down content to convince women to spend thousands of dollars freezing their eggs is not that. There’s tremendous complexity behind the choice to pursue fertility treatment — medically, financially, and emotionally. Where’s that story?
Here’s the good news (or the wake-up call). Most of the women I know don’t buy what they’re being sold. Quite the opposite, in fact. Many are highly skeptical of the chipper, over-simplified messaging they’re being served. This means that there’s a healthy “emotional immune system” in place. Women are very conscious of the mechanisms at work in health communications targeted to them. Brands should be conscious of those mechanisms, too.
Obviously, branded healthcare content can’t be all ominous warnings and reality checks. But we can do better. Much better. There’s a way to speak credibly without being condescending. It’s possible to reach business goals without collapsing into clichéd tropes. Inevitably, we won’t always get it right. A good dose of humility, thoughtful strategy, and collaboration with the folks we’re trying to connect with can make a world of difference.
Comments about how healthcare brands speak to women? Talk to us.
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