An Intersectional Approach to Understanding Health Audiences


Intersectionality is more than just a buzzword. Making genuine connections with consumers requires a deep understanding of the health inequities they may face and the context of their unique lived experiences. 

It’s all too easy for health brands and marketers to get tunnel vision about their consumers’ identities, which can lead to specific inequities and barriers to access. But when it comes to the lived experiences of consumers, you simply can’t look at identities in a silo. 

An individual’s identity is made up of a range of factors that include age, race, socioeconomic status, location, gender, and more. To understand the health inequities a person may experience, it’s necessary to understand how these factors intersect. 

This whole-person, intersectional approach allows us to build empathy, listen more deeply, and better work toward developing strategic marketing approaches that are rooted in deep user understanding. We can also do more to think of customers as people first, rather than as demographics and target audiences.

Throughout Healthline Media’s rigorous research process, we often find differing perspectives from providers and consumers. It’s invaluable to access high quality samples of both groups — on smaller and larger scales — to paint a full picture of lived health experiences. Based on our research insights, we’ve arrived at three key themes that illustrate the power of an intersectional approach to health.

Mental Health: Moving from Gatekeeping to Collaboration

Gatekeeping is often taught as a standard protocol for addressing patients and consumers. For example, primary care physicians act as a gatekeeper to specialists and other medical resources, essentially playing the role of intermediary and determining when patients can gain access to specific services. This is mainly done to reduce costs and avoid unnecessary medical intervention. But that doesn’t always mean the decisions made by medical professionals are fair to patients.

Dr. Lawrenz’s story. When psychologist Lori Lawrenz, PsyD, began treating a transgender patient seeking to transition, she was the last step in deciding whether or not her patient could move forward with procedures. Because of this experience, Dr. Lawrenz quickly realized that gatekeeping would severely limit her ability to help her patient. Over time, Dr. Lawrenz became an effective collaborator, listening and connecting with her patients’ stories in order to determine and address their needs.

What we can learn from Dr. Lawrenz’s story is that even if patients need guidance, expertise, and support, there is still much that medical professionals can learn from their patients. 

This collaboration is vital for marketers as well. We must ask ourselves if we are authentically listening to consumers and responding to the questions they have, rather than deciding what is best for them. The goal for physicians, health brands, and marketers should be to help patients and consumers be their most authentic selves.  We can achieve this by:

  • meeting the audience where they are emotionally

  • considering how we can learn from them

  • conveying that we are authentically listening to them

Body Image: The Intersection Between the Physical Body and the Physical Environment

We should acknowledge the importance that a person’s environment plays in their unique health and wellness journey. Realizing this connection helps us relate more deeply with consumers and patients.

Jenny’s story. A participant in our health equity study, Jenny wanted to manage her weight and sought out a nutrition lab for help. She was instructed to shop for certain groceries and ingredients. But after going to her local supermarket, it became apparent that she lived in a food desert, where the recommended ingredients either weren’t being sold or were too expensive. 

The advice given by her nutritionists and doctors did not consider her unique circumstances and the environment she was living in, which drastically changed her mindset from being motivated to manage her weight to being discouraged by setbacks. This isn’t just a medical professional  issue either. Healthcare brands and marketers should recognize that content, messaging, and advertising can serve to either empower or disengage audiences, depending on whether or not these strategies effectively take consumer experiences into account.

This is an example of how intersectionality plays a major role in designing for specific target audiences with unique needs. A key insight to recognize is that when you design for a marginalized group, you’re really designing for everyone. Being innovative in an inclusive way makes everyone from the center outward happier, which should incentivize medical professionals to adopt this mindset. 

In order to design innovative strategies with an intersectional approach, marketers should:

  • Be aware of accessibility issues within a target audience.

  • Realize that perception of self exists in the context of what a person has experienced or been exposed to.

  • Understand what terms, phrases, and language will resonate with different audience groups.

Gender Identity: Using Tools Collectively to Cultivate a Message

Conversations are happening all around us, especially in online spaces. There is power in being present for those conversations because they are authentic. Ease of access and crossover between platforms allow consumers to share and hear stories, often feeling more comfortable doing so through these informal channels than in a rigid clinical setting. This makes engaging with audiences through digital channels a powerful strategy for forming meaningful connections.

Dr. Armstrong’s story. Pediatrician Mia Armstrong, MD, considered the ways she could connect with her patients, their parents, and with her patient demographic at large. She noticed that her young patients were often in the midst of key moments in their identity journeys and were curious to know more about gender identity. As a result, Dr. Armstrong took to Instagram and TikTok to listen to patients in a social rather than clinical context. This helped her align with her younger patients about sensitive topics they might not have been comfortable discussing through clinical channels.

These social channels, which seem unconventional for the healthcare space at first glance, are quickly becoming an ideal method of communication, and listening, for many medical professionals and health brands. Social media is a powerful tool for educating and building trust with patients and consumers, so long as medical professionals and health brands tell the story without identifiable patient information, remaining HIPAA compliant. For the patients who want to share their stories, it’s important to obtain proper consent and follow best practices.

To take advantage of these channels, health brands and marketers should:

  • Think outside of the box when communicating with your target audience to insert powerful messages at the heart of the conversation.

  • Avoid creating messages in isolation. All channels should work together.

Healthline’s Commitment to Providing High Quality Intersectional Health Information

The insights we’ve gleaned provide a clear view of how health equity factors like mental health, body image, and gender identity have a direct relationship to the ways we choose to engage with patients and consumers. The intersectional approach is the natural next step in that engagement. At Healthline Media, we strive to understand the people we serve, and how their identities and circumstances affect their experience of health and wellness. For all health marketers, taking an intersectional approach is a more equitable and effective way to have an impact on audiences today. 

If you’re interested in leveraging Healthline Media’s insights and intersectional approach for your own health audiences, contact us today.

SOURCE: Healthline Media’s health equity study conducted in July 2020; Healthline Media’s physician interviews conducted in August 2021 with members of the Healthline Advisory Board.

About Healthline Media

As the #1 health media property in the US, Healthline Media reaches more than 94MM unique visitors each month (Comscore, August 2021). We provide credible health information with a compassionate approach.