Companies marketing useless health products to women using feminist wellbeing messages | Health

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Corporations are co-opting feminist messages around women’s wellbeing to promote useless health tests and treatments, an analysis by Australian researchers has found.

Published in the British Medical Journal on Thursday, the paper describes how these marketing messages echo those historically used to promote harmful products like tobacco and alcohol to women.

The researchers write that as a result, women are being potentially exposed to harms such as overdiagnosis and unnecessary treatment through messages encouraging them to take charge of their health.

The analysis uses the example of some menstrual tracking apps that claim to diagnose reproductive conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome, “promising empowerment through knowledge and control over your body, despite limited evidence of accuracy and benefit”, the analysis said.

“The problem is not with the use of health technologies, tests and treatments per se, as many women benefit greatly and gain improved quality of life from them,” wrote the authors, led by Dr Tessa Copp from the University of Sydney’s school of public health.

“The problem lies in the way commercial marketing and advocacy efforts push such interventions to a much larger group of women than is likely to benefit without being explicit about their limitations.”

They also highlight the marketing of the AMH test, which measures levels of anti-müllerian hormone in the blood. The hormone is linked to the number of eggs in a woman’s ovaries, but the test can not reliably predict a woman’s chances of conceiving.

Despite this, many fertility clinics and online companies market and sell the test as a fertility tool, using phrases such as “information is power” and “take charge of your fertility”.

A senior author of the paper, Dr Brooke Nickel, said the responsibility should not be placed on individual women to navigate these health messages and understand all potential benefits and harms of products.

“The responsibility should largely be placed on companies that market these health interventions to be clearer about their limitations,” she said.

“Health professionals and governments also have a responsibility to educate and counter commercially-driven messages, and more strongly regulate marketing of unproven health interventions.”

The need to highlight quality information among misinformation has led to initiatives such as Choosing Wisely Australia, which partners with peak health bodies to identify unnecessary tests, treatments and procedures.

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In October, a report co-authored by the Australasian Menopause Society, the Women’s Health Research Program at Monash University and Jean Hailes for Women’s Health revealed the powerful commercial incentives to “catastrophise” menopause in the minds of women to drive them to purchase often useless products to treat it.

Tech companies promising the diagnosis of reproductive conditions, and fertility clinics promoting egg freezing without providing adequate information about the likely outcomes and risks, were other areas where problematic, female-targeted advertising was rife, Nickel said.

She and Copp are now conducting research looking at how various health tests, including the AMH test, are being promoted on social media by companies and influencers.

“Who doesn’t want to feel empowered and as though they are taking control of their health?” Dr Karin Hammarberg, from Monash University’s global and women’s health unit, said.

“But when that is linked to products that are basically flawed, not helpful, and are going to cost you money, then it’s really false advertising.”

But Hammarberg said rules and regulations around the online advertising of therapeutic goods including vitamins and minerals were difficult for regulators to enforce.

“On top of that, these industries are very, very powerful, they’re hugely lucrative, and are often basically shareholder-owned. So the more you can sell this stuff, the more money you make. Consumer protections need to be stronger, especially when it comes to direct-to-consumer websites and holding the companies behind them to account.”

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