HealthMay 18, 2023

Improving women’s healthcare requires engagement across the ecosystem

The issue of women’s health and wellness has been at the forefront of the healthcare news cycle, even leading to the US Department of Health and Human Services establishing a National Women’s Health Week and other various coalitions recognizing National Women’s Health Month in May. But data shows, despite this trend, female-identifying patients are still likely to experience less attention from caregivers, less investment in their health needs, and sometimes less comprehensive care.

Studies and reviews reveal some of the ways female patients are receiving inequitable care:

  • Women wait longer for pain relief, according to a Harvard Health blog, which 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.
  • 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.
  • The same paper sees the financial imbalance in medical research as well, stating, “in nearly three-quarters of the cases where a disease afflicts primarily one gender, the funding pattern favors males,” in that either the disease affects more women and is underfunded or affects more men and is overfunded.

With the shortcomings in women’s healthcare reaching across so many areas, addressing them will require an ecosystem-wide approach.

How can payers step up for female members in their health journey?

Targeted efforts from health plans to reach female members and develop effective methods of supporting their healthcare journeys will become a critical priority.

“Women are just over half a payer’s member population,” says Allison Combs, Head of Product- Payer at Wolters Kluwer Clinical Effectiveness. “They also represent a strong opportunity for scaling care management to improve education, change behavior, and impact outcomes for both themselves and the loved ones they support.”

With many health plans running lean care management organizations, tools and content to drive this scale must be proven to not only speak to populations, like female members, empathetically but also to have analytic data to show that their tools drive behavior change.

To fully support this population, health plans must also be more inclusive, notes Eve Atri, Editorial Director of UpToDate® Member Engagement solutions (formerly Emmi). “Strive for gender-neutral language,” she advises, noting that members and patients who may confront health and wellness issues traditionally categorized as “women’s health” may not specifically identify that way. Outreach that is more inclusionary will reach more people.

Evolving care management for women’s health needs

The approach for payer care management is evolving to meet the member where and how they want and on their schedule. McKinsey highlights that payers may find 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.

"We’re busy!” says Combs. “In my role, I see how valuable these solutions can be, but 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.”

While there are many considerations in selecting approaches and tools that enable their organizations to contribute to advancing women’s healthcare in a meaningful way, clearly payers have an opportunity to become a part of this conversation.

Top four considerations for engaging female members to improve health outcomes

Atri offers some tips and observations about approaches to healthcare education and engagement that could be vital to better outreach and outcomes among women and female-identifying patients and plan members.

1. Demystify and empathize

Using Emmi programs that help patients understand the processes surrounding cervical cancer screenings as an example, Atri explains, “Anyone who's gone through cervical cancer screening knows, it’s not the most pleasant experience, right? But we try to normalize it and demystify what is happening. Empathize with patients over any fear that they might have when they’re going into a clinical setting and provide that balance. It’s a really short screening that has really long-term benefit.”

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. There are also challenges with maternal mortality rates, especially among patients within the Black population.

While it isn’t in the power of one caregiver or care manager to fix an entire social system, Atri notes that smaller-scale outreach and personalized health education can impact individual patients and members who need assistance with transportation, scheduling, and costs, or who may live in more remote locations.

“Help connect them with someone who can talk to them about ways to mitigate costs, help actually get them to the appointment they've scheduled, so they're not deterred” by apprehension or logistical and financial constraints, she advises.

3. Empower decision-making

“Our standard refrain in our programs is, ‘You know your body best,’” Atri says. She says 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. Atri also cites the value of advocates, like doulas in childbirth situations, to help patients when they may need additional support in a healthcare setting.

4. No topic is “taboo"

“It’s again going back to that sort of normalizing what people might be experiencing and having those straightforward conversations,” Atri says. Whether it’s menopause, which Atri notes, even a lot of healthcare professionals are uncomfortable discussing, or mental health, which still carries a stigma in many ways, “you can talk about things in a tasteful manner and help educate people in a way that’s not gross or upsetting and helps patients’ understanding of their own body and what’s going on with it.”

As payers seek to improve engagement among their members, understanding the unique challenges in women’s healthcare is essential to connecting with that population. Ensuring women and female-identifying members have the resources and support they need to take an active role in their health journey is one element towards improving overall health outcomes.

Learn more about patient engagement strategies for care management and download the whitepaper “Filling the healthcare gap: A care management opportunity” to learn how to support members with health educational materials.

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