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More Health Scare Than Health Care For Women

From historical myths to modern femtech apps, the focus of medical products aimed at women is often profit, not wellbeing.

Scare-mongering medical marketing may drive more women to undergo unnecessary tests or treatments. (Towfiqu Barbhuiya/Unsplash)

By Alison Downham Moore, Western Sydney University

SYDNEY, May 20 – For centuries, women have been bombarded with a relentless marketing push for unnecessary medical products and services that often have questionable benefits for their health.

From Victorian-era manuals promising control over a baby’s sex to the booming modern-day female technology or femtech app market, the focus seems to be on creating a market of “worried well” women rather than addressing genuine health concerns.

Women are known to spend far more on health compared to men, with more of women’s health services subject to higher out-of-pocket expense — a healthcare cost gap that exacerbates gender-based pay inequalities

Scare-mongering medical marketing may be contributing to this problem by driving more women to unnecessary tests or treatments.

Historically, doctors viewed women as the “sicker sex“, leading to a surge in medical advice manuals — many focusing on female reproductive health — as early as the 1820s.

These manuals, often rife with misinformation, were a prime example of capitalising on women’s anxieties.

One of the most commercially successful popular medical books of the 19th century gave medical advice to women about how to influence the sex of their child through specific foods and conceptive practices.

Another book in the late 20th century sold even more copies with a focus on this same topic.

Even as numerous medical experts and research studies had long debunked the notion that the sex of infants could be influenced, products and services purporting to assist women in this flourished.

Today, this is still the case but in a different form: IVF clinics in some countries provide for women and couples who wish to have a child of a specific sex, by selecting embryos on this basis.

It’s a costly process: United States fertility clinics charge around US$4,500 for sex selection — on top of the cost of IVF, which sets patients back around US$12,000 to US$14,000 per cycle.

Menopause is another area heavily targeted by marketers. This natural life stage has long been a major focus of gendered commercial targeting– through advice manuals, hormonal balancing programmes and coaching services, and especially through hormonal and pseudo-hormonal products.

In 2024, the market for menopause medical products was valued at around US$758.5 million, outstripping other medical products marketed at women worldwide by more than double.

In Australia, a major 2023 study found there are strong financial incentives to “catastrophise” menopause to drive women to purchase treatments. 

The authors from the Australasian Menopause Society, the Women’s Health Research Program at Monash University and Jean Hailes for Women’s Health, welcomed the fact “that perimenopause and menopause are now being discussed publicly” — but cautioned medical marketers to avoid “catastrophising” menopause, “particularly in the advertising of goods and services, as it could have the unintended consequences of eroding women’s resilience and stigmatising women as they approach midlife”.

While there is no doubt that some women suffer disruptive hot flashes and other symptoms in menopause, many do not at all, and known menopause symptoms are claimed to be found only in Western cultures.

The globalisation of menopause marketing is therefore creating new markets of “worried well” women who otherwise might not consider they needed medicating. 

Researchers have referred to this as “disease-mongering”. In the case of menopause products, it may be deeply problematic given the emerging evidence that hormone products taken by midlife women may influence their later risk of diseases of ageing such as dementia and stroke.

The rapidly growing femtech industry is another area where some companies are cashing in on women’s health — in a way that may not always benefit women as promised.

Femtech is a form of women’s health technology that has been rapidly growing since 2018.

In 2023, the femtech app market was valued at approximately US$30 billion and is projected to reach US$135 billion by 2032 — that is an expected compound annual growth rate of 16 percent.

The rise of femtech apps seems like a step forward, offering support for issues like reproductive health or general wellness, which are often overlooked by traditional medicine.

Femtech may provide support for some women’s health issues that are currently underserved by medical services, such as endometriosis, women’s ADHD, and seronegative chronic diseases that often result in women’s “medical gaslighting“.

However, the huge profits generated by the femtech industry’s expansion raise questions about whether such projects are primarily aimed at improving women’s well-being or rather at maximising the potential of women’s health concerns as an extractable market.

There is growing concern that many women’s health apps have inadequate privacy and security practices

Fertility apps, for example, often collect sensitive data about pregnancies and menstrual cycles — and sometimes then share it with others, exposing it to “re-identification” and data breach risks.

These apps are not always transparent about the data they trade with and collect from other companies.

Alison Downham Moore is an associate dean of research in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at Western Sydney University.

Article courtesy of 360info.  

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