Flo’s nationwide survey on the state of health literacy shows that 56% of UK women rely on generic advice from search engines for menstrual health information.
11 May 2023, London: Flo Health, the most popular women’s health app globally with 50 million monthly active users, has released the findings of a nationwide survey of women aged 18–55, highlighting a staggering degree of misinformation and prominent gaps in the knowledge women have about their own bodies.
While the United Kingdom has free, universal health care and compulsory sexual and reproductive health education, £1 billion in cuts to sexual health services since 20151 and a wider NHS crisis mean women have fewer credible places to gain knowledge. They are increasingly going online in search of knowledge, turning to search engines, online forums, and social media. On TikTok, #womenshealth content alone has so far amassed 7.3 billion views.2 The sheer volume of information from a myriad of sources has the potential to leave women vulnerable to misinformation, and therefore it has never been more important that women have access to credible and personalised information to take their health into their own hands.
Flo Health’s report, titled “MIND THE GAPS: Menstrual & reproductive misinformation in the UK in 2023”, shows that over half (56%) of UK women rely on search engines for their information about menstrual health, while nearly one in 10 turn to social media. However, even accurate results from search engines and medically qualified social media influencers can serve up only generalised advice. Younger women aged 18–34 are the most likely to turn to online resources and also the most likely to find aspects of sex and masturbation to be taboo.
Among other key findings, the survey revealed that:
- 72% of women never double-check the health information they get on social media, while nearly one in five (18%) women aged 18–24 go to social media for information around menstrual health.
- One in 10 wrongly believe that the “pullout method” is 90% or more effective in preventing pregnancy, while nearly half (46%) don’t know when it’s the best time to have sex to get pregnant.
- Over a quarter (26%) don’t understand that you can catch sexually transmitted infections (STIs) during oral, vaginal, or anal sex, with 59% of British women not knowing that you can catch an STI without having sex.
- More than half (54%) were not aware of premenstrual syndrome before their first period, while one in 10 figured out by themselves how to use menstrual products like pads and tampons.
- Nearly one in 10 (9%) mistakenly believe that the more sex you have, the looser your vagina will be; 7% wrongly believe that tampons can stretch your vagina; and 11% believe that you should wash inside your vagina.
- Over a fifth (21%) strongly agree or somewhat agree that masturbation is shameful or wrong. This taboo is more prevalent among younger women, with a quarter (25%) of women aged 18–34 seeing it as shameful, compared to only 15% of 45–55-year-olds.
Dr Claudia Pastides, MBBS, Director of Medical Accuracy at Flo Health, explains, “Low health literacy is a direct contributor to the spread of misinformation3 and leads to poor health outcomes and unhealthy behaviours,4 especially in the areas of menstrual, sexual, and pregnancy health. Every woman’s body is different, and every woman’s experience with her menstrual and reproductive health is unique, but this is not taken into consideration enough.
“We at Flo Health are working towards being part of the solution to this problem. We want to empower women to better understand their own unique bodies, destigmatise taboo topics, and ultimately improve their health literacy by personalising their access to medically credible health information.”
The findings demonstrate that there is an urgent need for online platforms to focus on fact-checking and ensuring that users can easily identify credible information sources, especially given that fake news reaches more people than the truth and spreads deeper, faster, and more broadly online.5 The future of women’s health is at a turning point, and according to Flo’s predictions, these are the developments we can expect in the next 12 months:
- The role of artificial intelligence (AI): While the technology has advanced rapidly, especially with the recent launch of ChatGPT, it still needs to be determined how advanced forms of AI can complement the expertise of medical professionals or give personalised health insights.
- The misinformation pushback: The COVID-19 pandemic exposed how vulnerable we are to health misinformation and how dangerous that can be. Flo predicts that efforts will be made to increase digital literacy. We will become increasingly aware of how to identify misinformation and disinformation, and become more knowledgeable about how to access trustworthy sources online.
- The rise of a personalised health experience: With search engines and social media influencers only offering “one-size-fits-all” generalised advice, women will seek to supplement their menstrual and sexual health knowledge with personalised health insights, whether that’s on-demand virtual consultations with medical professionals, wearable devices, or apps that can learn from your inputs and provide relevant information, including period and ovulation trackers like Flo.
Being well informed about your health is empowering, so it’s no wonder women want to take charge of it. Nearly nine in 10 (89%) of Flo users say it’s helped them feel more informed and educated about their cycle health.6 Beyond helping individual women to better understand their bodies, Flo is also actively helping to close the medical research gender gap and producing medically credible content to help inform millions of women. “It’s so incredibly helpful and empowering. I wish I’d been taught so much of this in school rather than just the generic ‘biology of the reproductive system and that women will be grumpy and always have a bag with them for tampons and pads’. This app has changed so much, thank you!” said Kate, a Flo user from the United Kingdom.
For more detailed findings and infographics, visit https://flo.health/landings/reproductive-health-report-uk