Online feedback harms women's access to health care, research finds

By Shanzay Shabi Monday, March 7, 2022

Unmarried women around the world can face societal barriers in accessing reproductive health care. A study by Information School Ph.D. student Hyeyoung Ryu and Professor Wanda Pratt (pictured above, from left) reveals these barriers are largely rooted in cultural attitudes that foster the prevalence of microaggressions within social and online interactions. 

In a paper published in the February issue of the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, Ryu and Pratt described how social media reveals and reinforces the suppression of women’s health care. Their research, focused on access to gynecological care for unmarried women in South Korea, found that women’s health care was significantly restricted by surrounding social and cultural contexts. 

To collect data for their research, Ryu and Pratt turned to social media for its easy accessibility and expansive reach. They sifted through Twitter and Nate Pann, two of the most popular online platforms in South Korea, and analyzed posts from unmarried women sharing their experiences with microaggressions and gynecological care. Their study uncovered a cyclical pattern of microaggressions within the online and interpersonal culture of South Korea that victimizes women seeking care. 

Ryu and Pratt found that within South Korean women’s relationships, the people who are supposed to provide emotional support are often the ones unintentionally performing microaggressions. Women, therefore, frequently turn to online communities to share their experiences and determine whether they are being overly sensitive. The tendency to seek online support, however, frequently subjects women to microaggressions as well and further suppresses their access to gynecological care. 

Despite South Korea’s network of resources and financial support for women seeking reproductive health care, Ryu and Pratt’s data revealed the suppression of women’s health care still persists. If hesitancy in seeking gynecological services exists in a country like South Korea, Ryu and Pratt believe the problems facing women in settings with a lack of institutional and financial support must be even worse. 

Ryu and Pratt noted that microaggressions directed at women seeking reproductive health care occur more commonly than we may think. 

“This is not another person’s story; these experiences are happening to the people around you. It could be your sister, your mom, or even your brother or father,” Ryu said. “The people around you are probably unknowingly experiencing or contributing to the cycle of microaggressions that suppress women’s health care.”

“Our hope is to help detect microaggressions and create better online environments that support women in getting the care they need.”

Pratt and Ryu emphasized the importance of cultural competence in delivering equitable and accessible health care to women. They envision incorporating informatics principles into technology to enable women to combat the microaggressions they face online and to help make the perpetrators of microaggressions aware of the harm they are causing. 

“There have been too many instances of female hesitancy in seeking gynecological care causing serious health challenges that could have been avoided with early diagnosis,” Pratt said. “Our hope is to help detect microaggressions and create better online environments that support women in getting the care they need.” 

Ryu’s interest in health informatics is what brought her to the iSchool to study under Pratt. Both said their passion for improving access to health services stems from personal experiences with patient care along with those of their loved ones.

Ryu, a second-year Ph.D. student, has impressed Pratt with her ambition. “She’s phenomenal. She has so much passion and energy and drive to do work that matters and to do a lot of work,” Pratt said. 

Ryu is motivated by her desire to mitigate health care barriers for underserved populations and empower them with the technology to actively manage their own care. She is working on co-designing a framework for online mitigation tools that women can use to resist online microaggressions, and is pursuing further research focused on improving Korean women’s access to gynecological care. 

While this research focused on the cultural context of South Korea, the obstacles Ryu and Pratt identified as suppressing Korean women’s access to gynecological care are representative of the cultural barriers and microaggressions experienced by women around the world. 

“Women and people who have a uterus have historically been denied adequate care. Without access to proper reproductive health care, their future health is in danger,” Pratt said.