How Hospital Marketers Can Help Combat the Bias Around Obesity

This article originally appeared on Forbes.

People who suffer from obesity, and particularly women, have for a long time received a resounding message from popular culture: You eat too much. You don’t exercise enough. You lack self-control. In short: If you’re overweight, you have no one to blame but yourself.

The gendered messaging is so pronounced that multiple studies show that more women than men attempt to lose weight. According to research, men with obesity are also less likely to have an accurate perception of their weight, and they’re less likely to be dissatisfied with their weight. This helps explain why significantly more women opt to undergo bariatric surgery than men.

It’s clear that our society expects women to be thin. When they don’t measure up, the blame game starts. But recent medical advances paint a much more complex and nuanced portrait of the causes of obesity.

Factors like geneticssocioeconomicsgendergut hormones and other hormones like leptin and ghrelin, and even a parent’s perceptions of their child’s weight can all play a part in the likely development of obesity over an individual’s lifetime. In 2013, the American Medical Association classified obesity as a disease, a move intended to make it easier for people who suffer from it to get treatment.

These advances in understanding give hospital and healthcare marketers an opening for reaching female bariatric surgery prospects. By creating messaging that takes the focus off blame, marketers can relieve the burden of guilt on female patients and boost the likelihood that women will respond to the messaging, wherever they happen to be in their journey toward decreased weight, better health or both.

Here are four ways marketers can reach female bariatric surgery prospects:

Legitimize their struggle. Most patients who seek bariatric surgery have made multiple attempts to lose weight with little success. When they do succeed, the weight almost always comes back, leaving them feeling that they’ve lost control. Messaging that credits women for their hard work and sympathizes with the frustrations they feel will resonate with them.

Educate them. Diet and exercise are not the sole factors that play into a person’s weight. Women who have struggled with their weight likely already know this from personal experience, but they don’t know what else is coming into play. By creating informative content, such as informational videos, blogs and social media posts, you can help alleviate their guilt, show that you know what you’re talking about and that you’re a trusted partner who can help them.

Highlight the health benefits of surgery. Often, it’s not solely the stigma of being overweight that prompts women to seek out surgery — it’s that they’re also struggling to keep up with the demands of daily life due to obesity comorbidities, such as type-2 diabetes, sleep problems, high blood pressure and increased risk of heart issues and some cancers. Studies show that as people lose weight after bariatric surgery, many of these conditions can be alleviated or even eliminated. The American Diabetes Association recently published guidelines regarding bariatric and metabolic surgery as a treatment for type 2 diabetes.

Address barriers. It’s well known that multiple factors prevent people from pursuing bariatric surgery, such as patient knowledge levels and attitudes, interaction with physicians, insurance issues, expense concerns, a lack of resources, the fear of being seen as taking the easy way out, and more. Specifically addressing these issues in marketing messages can help resolve these barriers and encourage people to start a conversation with their doctor about whether bariatric surgery is right for them.

As the cultural conversation about obesity’s causes, effects and treatments continue to evolve, it’s important for marketers to pay attention, especially to the ways women talk about their experiences and their lives. They’ll tell us what they need, how they need to hear it and whether it’s helpful and effective. It’s up to us to listen.

Kathy Selker
I’m Kathy Selker. My work as managing director of Stratos and previously as CEO of Northlich, has taught me a great deal about how hospitals and health systems can best connect with women to make the most positive impact in their lives.
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