In March, reports surfaced that the Department of Health and Human Services had quietly removed information pertaining to LGBTQ+ women’s health issues from their women’s health website, womenshealth.gov. Now, HHS representatives want to set the story straight.
According to Politico, a pair of reports published by the Sunlight Foundation revealed that the Health and Human Services’ women-centered website, WomensHealth.gov, removed a webpage dedicated to gay and bisexual women’s health resources from its website back in September and October of 2017. A week later, another report by the Sunlight Foundation found that information about breast cancer was also scrubbed from the women’s health site.
But do these reports tell the whole story?
is HHS’s most frequently-visited site, with around 700,000 views per month. According to a spokesperson from the Department of Health and Human Services, the breast cancer information page was one of the least-viewed pages on the site. It was also woefully out of date.
“The fact sheet in question was over eight years old and had less than 12,000 page views over seven months,” the HHS spokesperson told Brit + Co. And while the page was not performing well, the department has also been working to move its content to a more mobile-friendly base and update information.
“We did an audit to really understand how people search for information and most people come via search from Google,” the spokesperson explained, adding that similar fact sheets by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) attract more visitors when found via Google than the HHS page did.
While HHS has been updating their content to be more searchable and mobile-friendly, they have also been working with NCI to syndicate content from the Institute’s own extensive database as opposed to trying to duplicate the work with less clear results.
“They [NCI] are experts and it makes more sense,” our source said, adding, “we just don’t have unlimited resources to provide the best information, and we want to provide information that really reflects what people are looking for.”
As for whether or not new breast cancer information will be available on WomensHealth.gov, we were told that HHS has listened to the public’s concerns and are working to syndicate the content from NCI onto their website, but that for the department, it’s really about using their small team to produce the best resources and provide the public with information that we need.
“We take our roles as stewards of health information really seriously. We don’t do anything based on ideology OR what administration is in place. We look at traffic, we look at best practices, and we make decisions accordingly.”
As for last month’s decision to remove LGBTQ+ specific content, the spokesperson said that the department learned that visitors to the site tend to be searching for disease-specific information, and not information tied to sexual orientation — and that, often, orientation labels may even drive visitors away from their site’s content.
“We’ve integrated information for women who have sex with women into our content,” she said. “Not everyone identifies themselves as LGBTQ+ regardless of their sexual orientation, but again, in our research and talking with health communications experts, [we learned] that people are looking for disease-specific information regardless of audience. We made this change [to the website] because we feel this is more responsive.”
Though HHS’s reasoning makes sense, Julie Childers, Executive Director of the organization Our Bodies Ourselves, says that the move could still have negative outcomes.
“Any time information is made less accessible is a reason for concern. Government websites, in particular, should seek to provide more information, not less, that improves access to healthcare and treats all people equally,” Childers told us.
And although Health and Human Services have clarified that they are trying to simplify their information, it can be especially concerning for these pages to be moved or deleted at the same time that the Trump administration is making other, potentially more damaging regulations for women’s health like, for instance, a return to funding abstinence-only sex education.
“These programs spread misinformation and have never been shown to decrease rates of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections,” Childers told us.
For those still looking for health information online, there are plenty of resources to choose from. “Our website is a good source of information,” Childers notes. “We also link to many partner sites, like Scarleteen, which we think also do great work!”
(Photo via Getty)