Ph.D. student’s work on health microaggressions wins acclaim

By Samantha Herndon Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Information School doctoral student Hyeyoung Ryu and Professor Wanda Pratt recently won the Samantha Adams Best Paper award for their paper published in JAMIA, the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association. Their paper, “Microaggression clues from social media: revealing and counteracting the suppression of women’s health care,” exposes how social media reveals and reinforces the suppression of health care for unmarried Korean women. The award recognizes a recent paper that exemplifies the legacy and scholarship of Adams’s work at the intersection of informatics and ethics.

Ryu and Pratt’s objective was to demonstrate how analyzing social media posts can uncover microaggressions and generate new cultural insights. They explored why Korean women hesitate to seek recommended gynecological care, and how microaggressions visible in social media reveal insights for counteracting harmful messaging that discourages seeking care. This is part of a larger research arc on microaggressions. “I want to mitigate the barriers to technology, and to better communication, to make their care more effective and efficient,” Ryu says.

Analyzing data from the popular Korean social media site Nate Pann, as well as from Twitter, the pair found that mothers, male partners, and people on social media contribute to pre- and post-visit microaggressions toward unmarried women seeking gynecological care. These findings have implications for improving quality of care and the likelihood that patients will access health screenings.

When Ryu completed her undergraduate studies and moved to the U.S. to pursue her Ph.D. at the iSchool, she knew her research would be motivated by a primary goal: improving efficiency and effectiveness for people who are being undertreated in the medical system. Ryu’s interest in improving health care efficiencies was informed by her own experience as a caregiver for loved ones with life-threatening chronic illnesses. Bolstered by the mentorship of Professor Wanda Pratt, who was highly influential in her decision to study at the UW, Ryu shaped this research interest into a series of studies examining online and offline interactions and how they influence care.

For Ryu, now in her third year at the University, the research collaboration with Pratt has been pivotal. “One of the core beliefs I have is in people,” Ryu says. “Dr. Pratt showed me that, without being micromanaging, people can still thrive and pursue their research, but also have the warmth and the personal connections that I need to grow as an independent researcher who can thrive on my own and, some day, have my own research group.” As Ryu outlined her own research plans and read background literature about microaggressions, she realized that these harmful patterns were so prevalent in her home country — but that Korean doesn’t have a term for microaggressions. She and Pratt decided to team up to study the issue in a Korean context.

In open forums online, people could ask their questions about health care, including gynecological care. Reluctance to access gynecological care is related, Ryu says, to concerns that accessing this kind of care means that someone has become sexually active — a challenging and incorrect assumption in a culture that highly prizes chastity.

“The theme that I found the most interesting was that the people who they depend on the most are the people who perpetuate the microaggressions the most. People who are trying to be helpful are unknowingly perpetuating the microaggressions in online spaces,” Ryu says. Rather than recommending a punitive approach, in which online communities ban users from posting after they have committed microaggression, Ryu’s research supports more education for people across forums and experiences.

Instead of solving the problem for people who have experienced microaggressions, Ryu and Pratt seek to involve them in co-designing solutions. “We thought that was important,” Ryu says, “to make them aware of microaggressions and their effects, and to be inclusive in the design.” Inclusive design and a combination of systems-level and person-centered approaches help the graduate student to ground her work.

“Counteraction can’t be achieved in these kinds of circumstances if you only think about efficiency,” Ryu says. “You have to think about the people, what their considerations are, how they receive things, even if it’s at a smaller scale to start with. That gives a human-based approach to understanding how people are approaching problems, and how they actually want the problems to be solved.”