Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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In some cases, the problem is not with the tests or treatments themselves – but with the way they’re being inappropriately marketed to healthy women who won’t benefit from them.

Cashing in on women’s health

By Grace Jennings-Edquist, Commissioning Editor, 360info

Women’s health has been sidelined for centuries. But now that women are finally being heard, some unscrupulous companies are cashing in on the movement.

After centuries of being sidelined by medical science, women’s health may finally be starting to get the attention it deserves.

The mass media has begun to cover the gender pain gap, an expert panel is investigating medical misogyny in Australia, and scientists in many countries are now required to include women in their research studies.

Unfortunately, some unscrupulous companies are cashing in on the women’s health advocacy movement.

Recently published research led by University of Sydney’s Dr Tessa Copp has found that a number of corporations are “co-opting feminist messages” to promote useless health treatments and tests.

The researchers found that, although increased awareness of women’s health issues is important to overcome gender inequalities in healthcare, “promoting healthcare interventions that are not supported by evidence, or while concealing or downplaying evidence, increases the risk of harm to women through inappropriate medicalisation, overdiagnosis, and overtreatment.”

In some cases, the problem is not with the products, tests or treatments themselves but with the way they’re being inappropriately marketed to healthy women who won’t benefit from them.

For example, egg-freezing is being marketed by some fertility services via paid social media influencers.

One fertility provider has defended its advertising on the grounds that the ads are aimed at “empowering” and informing women.

But experts say the messaging may give the impression that egg-freezing is a “silver bullet”  for anyone wanting to delay their childbearing years, when in fact it’s expensive, invasive and far from failsafe.

Diabetes drug Semaglutide (Ozempic) is also being promoted by celebrity influencers and websites as an “empowering” weight loss aid.

While Australia’s drug regulator has warned influencers against publicly promoting the drug for this off-label use, the practice remains rife in the United States, Malaysia and elsewhere.

The problem is this: By framing Ozempic as a “miracle” drug for losing weight, this marketing creates unrealistic expectations among their followers regarding the medication’s safety and efficacy.

The popularising of this medication for its weight loss benefits can be also seen as a blow to the feminist body positivity movement – all while presenting Ozempic as an empowering means to “take control of your body”.

And with the drug selling for more than AUD$150 per month with a private prescription, the medicine’s off-label use is a money-maker for pharmaceutical giants.

Menstrual products and milk formula for breastfeeding mothers are also sometimes subject to misleading, supposedly feminist-branded advertising (known as “femvertising”).

Some companies are also (arguably) over-selling treatments for menopause: As a major 2023 study found, there are strong financial  incentives to “catastrophise” menopause in order to drive them women purchase treatments for it.

Finally, women are disproportionately impacted by chronic pain – and a recent ABC Four Corners special shone a spotlight on costly and invasive treatments offered by the pain management industry. These include spinal fusions and spinal cord stimulators, which can fail and cause complications.

As Mary O’Keeffe, from University College Dublin, writes, women with chronic pain are not always made aware – as they should be – that in many cases, the most appropriate treatment may be lower-cost, less invasive, evidence-based treatments such as Cognitive Functional Therapy.

As public discussion about women’s health and pain wears on, this special report examines what can be done to rein in the unscrupulous actors in this space – while acknowledging that women’s health awareness and advocacy is a pressing issue in need of real solutions.

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