Internal Hospital Marketing Campaigns Can Combat Gender Bias

This post originally appeared on Forbes.

The conversation about the differences between how women and men are medically treated in America continues to evolve. Some claim women are treated fairly and others point out gender disparities that favor one sex or the other.

The fact remains that many diseases and conditions that affect women at higher rates than men, such as migraine and autoimmune disorders, or that are exclusive to women, such as endometriosis, have fewer research dollars devoted to interventions to treat them, and few studies have examined the effects of treatments specifically on women.

There’s also the never-ending conversation about how women and men report differently on their own health, with a medical-system bias toward perceiving women as complaining too much about pain and prescribing opioid pain medications less in emergency rooms despite equitable symptoms. A study published in the European Journal of Public Health tried to lay the argument of “women as complainers” to rest. It found that women more frequently report being in poor health because they are in poorer health; they suffer pain more intensely and, per the WHO, “tend to be more affected by long-term and chronic illness, which significantly affects the quality of their lives.”

But the fact that this conversation is still happening shows that even scientific evidence isn’t enough to sway a deep-seated medical bias against taking women’s reports seriously.

The problem isn’t just a cultural argument over who has it worse when it comes to the complex American healthcare system. There are life-threatening consequences to healthcare gender bias. In August 2018, a study published in PNAS suggested that when women are treated by male doctors in emergency rooms, they survive heart attacks and other traumatic health episodes at a lower rate than when they are treated by women doctors — or, interestingly, than when they’re treated by male doctors who practice with more female colleagues or who treat more female patients. The study showed that in heart attack patients in Florida over the span of 20 years, female patients treated by male physicians had a higher mortality rate.

In my last article about gender bias in healthcare, I talked about the ways marketers can address women’s concerns about being taken less seriously by doctors. This time I’d like to focus on how marketers can help hospitals create internal communications meant to turn the tide toward equality in healthcare. My work as CEO of Northlich, an independent marketing agency with a healthcare focus, has taught me the value of internal hospital marketing campaigns for creating positive cultural change.

Here are four reasons why running an internal campaign is a good idea.

  • It can help you broaden the scope of women’s health. “Women’s health” traditionally means “reproductive health.” But studies have proven there are sometimes dramatic differences between the sexes that warrant different treatments for the same condition. If your hospital or health system is trying to shift toward serving women more holistically (which is a great idea), an internal campaign focused on the changes you’re making will help your employees better understand them before you roll them out publicly.
  • It affects the patient experience. A quality experience for employees generates a better patient experience.
  • It can boost employee advocacy. This can, in turn, boost the perception of your health system or hospital in the community. Happy employees generally say good things about where they work.
  • It gives you a chance to test the waters. If there’s an issue with your campaign messaging (i.e., unintentional stereotyping, overly gendered language, etc.), your employees can catch it before it’s extended into the broader public market.

Try these tactics to boost the efficacy of your internal campaigns aimed at improving the healthcare experience for women.

  • Promote your organization internally as one that listens to women’s concerns. An effective internal marketing campaign with this focus can shift employee attitudes, which can result in an improved experience for women at your hospital or healthcare organization.
  • Treat your employees, and particularly your nurses, as customers. When your staff sees that you’re paying attention to their concerns, their commitment to your hospital or healthcare organization typically increases.
  • Focus on satisfaction. Even if an organization is not planning any changes to the employees’ workplace, marketers can influence employee perceptions of their job satisfaction through internal messaging that reinforces positive workplace attributes. Employee satisfaction has a trickle-down effect on patients’ perceptions of the quality of their care.
  • Share success stories. Does your system have female patients who have been through the medical wringer before finally finding answers and hope via your doctors? Feature their stories in your internal marketing. People seek out a career in healthcare out of a drive to help others. When employees feel that they are contributing to positive outcomes, it reinforces their commitment to their career and to your system.

Need a little more inspiration? Here are two encouraging news stories that show the beginning of a turning tide toward more equitable access to quality care.

  • Recent regulations around National Institute of Health (NIH) funding for medical studies changed to stipulate that researchers who use animals must use both sexes in their studies. The positive effects weren’t immediate, as it has taken time for the results of new studies to be published, but as more studies are completed that use animal research from animals of both sexes, the knowledge base about how medications and treatments affect men and women differently will grow.
  • Digital health startups have more women at the helm than traditional healthcare systems. Startups can be great instigators that disrupt industry norms and move the needle on progress.

To drive patient satisfaction, healthcare marketers must first look inward. Hospitals and healthcare systems that use internal campaigns to boost their organizational health and employee satisfaction are likely to reap the benefits in the form of increased volume and happier patients.

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.