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The Australian Women and Digital Health Project: comprehensive report of findings

Health informatics Wearable technology Women's health Australia

A range of digital technologies are available to people to find, share and generate health-related information. Few studies have directed attention specifically to how women are using these technologies from the diverse array available to them. Even fewer have focused on Australian women’s use of digital health technologies. The Australian Women and Digital Health Project aimed to investigate which types of digital technologies women used regularly for health-related purposes and which they found most helpful and useful. Qualitative methods – semi-structured interviews and focus groups that were recorded and transcribed for analysis – were employed to shed light on the situated complexities of the participants’ enactments of digital health technologies. The project was comprised of two separate studies, including a total of 66 women (age range from 21 to 74 years). In study 1, 36 women living in the city of Canberra took part in face-to-face interviews and focus groups, while study 2 involved telephone interviews with 30 women from other areas of Australia. A feminist new materialism theoretical approach was used to analyse the interview and focus group transcripts.

The findings demonstrate the nuanced and complex ways in which the participants were engaging with and contributing to online sources of information and using these sources together with face-to-face encounters with doctors and other healthcare professionals and friends and family members. They highlight the lay forms of expertise that the women had developed in finding, assessing and creating health knowledges. The findings also emphasise the key role that many women play in providing advice and health care for family members not only as digitally engaged patients but also as digitally engaged carers. Many women reported using internet resources to provide health advice and support to family members and friends as well as receiving advice as part of their existing caring and social relationships.

All of the participants said that they accessed both online sources and face-to-face sources of health information regularly. All referred to visiting doctors and other healthcare professionals, and the majority noted that in-person interactions with family and friends were also a key source of health information for them. For the most part, traditional media forms, such as books, were not highly used. However, printed pamphlets remained influential sources for about half of the participants. In terms of digital technology adoption, using a search engine to search for health information online was a universal practice among the participants. Health and fitness apps were used by over half of the participants. Calorie-tracking apps such as MyFitnessPal and Weight Watchers and physical activity apps for monitoring heart rate, calories burnt and steps taken or providing workout or yoga programs and routines were by far the most often mentioned. Social media were used less frequently (a third of participants), with Facebook groups most often mentioned as social media sources of information about health. One in five participants were currently using a wearable device for health-related purposes, with Fitbit fitness trackers and Apple Watches the most popular. Small numbers of women said that they used digital self-care devices to manage a chronic health condition or exercise games like Wii Fit, while none reported using online physical fitness platforms like Strava. Many participants demonstrated a lack of awareness of and interest in the Australian government’s electronic patient record, My Health Record. Only one-third had signed up, suggesting that attempts by the government to publicise and promote the system have not been effective.

For women with chronic health conditions and those caring for infants and young children, in particular, online forums and social media groups were often used as a form of lay creation and sharing of knowledge. The key benefits of online peer sources were the opportunity to share experiences as well as ask advice and find support from other people experiencing similar illnesses or life events. The participants particularly valued being able to access a more personal form of information that provided insights from others’ experiences.

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