Healthcare Is Failing Women: 5 Ways We Can Make It Better

Healthcare is failing women in ways too numerous to count--but the good news? Many people in health and wellness industries are joining forces to make it better.

On Wednesday, June 14th, the Walnut Health team presented a poster on “Facilitating Sustainable Exercise & Nutrition Habits in Women” at the 3rd biennial Women’s Healthcare Innovation & Leadership Showcase. This event was hosted by the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA) of NY/NJ Region at the Rutgers University Medical School.  

For the past two years, we at WH have been interviewing and holding small group meetings with women in the wellness industry to discuss their personal and professional experiences with health behaviors.  We documented and analyzed this information to provide recommendations for other health professionals to use with patients in helping them to make better lifestyle choices.  

As most people are well aware, healthcare spending in the US dwarfs that of other nations, while our outcomes rank far below the majority of countries in the developed world. We need to simultaneously reign in costs and improve results--undoubtedly a daunting task.  

Part of the solution involves changing the way we approach health as a culture. Let’s start with these facts:

  • The acronym for the Standard American Diet, “SAD”, is aptly named.
  • Only a small percentage of the population gets enough exercise.
  • We have an abundance of diet fads and trendy workouts, yet many people struggle to adhere to these often rigid and unpleasant programs.
  • Women tend to have particularly poor results due to social pressure to achieve extreme and unrealistic body weights/shapes.  

Women typically serve as the gatekeepers to household food supply and coordinators of family activities--not to mention they serve the biological role of incubators for our future generations. Addressing their health needs is imperative to improving the health of our entire population.

Our whitepaper includes methods for physicians and other other healthcare and wellness providers to communicate with women more effectively around nutrition and exercise. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Our fellow presenters and esteemed speakers at the WHILS conference addressed systemic issues of the entire healthcare system, from microcosm to macrocosm, and shared their ideas for reforming it to better serve women. Here are some of the key takeaways:

1. We need to address the “social determinants” of health in order to “bend the cost curve”.

Educating patients about healthy eating and exercise habits is important, but even the best interventions won’t be very effective if patients cannot afford to buy vegetables, gym memberships, or even secure housing. Dr. Gail Reilly, Chief Clinical and Quality Officer of the Visiting Nurses Association of Central Jersey (VNACJ) Community Health Center, stated the need to move from “little h to Big H” in healthcare--thinking about the long game and focusing more on prevention. As she put it, “We need to take a more proactive and holistic approach to healthcare. Health means more than just not being acutely ill.” The difficulty with doing this now? Very few payment models incentivize this type of care.

 

2. We need a more integrative team-based, approach to practice.  

Under the current care delivery model, services are soloed by specialty, with little communication between a patient’s multiple providers, leading to fragmented, incomplete and often redundant treatment. Making sound judgements and treatment recommendations proves difficult without all of the relevant information about a person’s physical and mental health. No single doctor has the time or training to fully assess all aspects of every patient; But if primary care doctors collaborated with behavioral health specialists, they could each impart key insights that the others may have missed, allowing for improved quality of care across the board.

 

3. We need to gather all stakeholders at the table in order to build better products and services.  

Thirteen upper-class white men recently secluded themselves in a backroom to discuss healthcare reforms. The resulting piece of legislation *shockingly* omitted protections for women’s prenatal care and family planning services and allowed insurance companies to deny policy issuance based on “pre-existing” conditions that predominantly effect women, like rape and childbirth.

Bottom line: We need to create space for the voices of those impacted by the decisions being made. Taken From & Eve Dryer (on the "Provider, Academia & Industry Collaboration" panel)  discussed a new model, known as “mash-up”, and how the pharmaceutical industry is using this collaborative approach in drug and device development. Patient advocacy groups, caregivers, doctors, insurers, and even employers, get the chance to weigh-in on what types of products should be researched and developed.

 

4. We need to better educate and communicate with patients to help them make wiser choices about self-care and medical treatment.

One fellow poster-presenter, Sarah Fadem, displayed her research, along with Sunyoung Kim, PhD, on using peer recommendations for bone marrow transplants. Their project involves an online program that matches participants based on similar demographics so that patients receive information from sources they are more inclined to trust.  

Beth Gaglione, RN, CEO of Healthywomen.org, shared her insights from running a women’s health website. In her experience, women have very little time and are often too embarrassed to discuss certain topics with their doctors in-person. For these reasons, they turn to the internet, which can provide a confusing array of less-than-reliable resources. Therefore, healthcare organizations should consider making easy-to-understand information available in multiple-formats and channels, including digital and social media, to facilitate learning and improve the health of their patients.

 

5. We need to equip doctors and other caregivers with more wellness education to address the complex needs of today’s patients.  

Our poster gave recommendations on how to deliver information about exercise and nutrition, but doctors need to learn more about these subjects in the first place in order to be able to speak to them at all. Dr. Connie Newman, of NYU, emphasized the importance of this issue in addressing the obesity crisis.  Obesity disproportionately impacts women, and it negatively impacts not only maternal health but also fetal development. Tackling this problem needs to be an imperative of the healthcare industry if we want to turn the tide on costs and outcomes.   

 

Healthcare is slowly moving in a more holistic, patient-centered direction, but policies continue to lag behind. As we debate healthcare reform legislation, we should seek to implement policies that foster these types of innovations.