By Caitlin Dalton, Innovation Director
It’s an exciting time to work in women’s health. Of course, there are many inequalities impacting the health of women that make us feel like we’re screaming into the void, but progress is happening.
Health inequality – or health equity as it was recently rebranded by the World Health Organisation – is now a salient issue in women’s health, with private and public healthcare system leaders starkly aware of the need for change. And by listening to women’s voices and to women talking about their health issues, women-led companies are at last creating solutions for women that cater specifically to their health needs.
Your everyday health tracker may not be able to tell whether your temperature is increasing because you are unwell or because you’re ovulating, but femtech platforms like wild.ai can. Femtech innovations in reproductive health, endometriosis, contraception, menopause and women’s mental health have had success in clinical trials and won millions of global supporters. It’s a growing industry to be proud of.
Femtech as open access to information
The femtech industry has the potential to be the next stage of evolution in the open access movement. Taking on the role of a public library, which allows a wider section of society to access information, the mobile phone has become the place to your find information. Of course, public libraries still play a vital role in community life and the much-lamented closures have wide-reaching implications. But as technology drives change, fewer of us reach for a library card. In our digital society, online content far outnumbers information published in books, journals, or any print form. Though finding good women’s health information among the masses that is available is another story.
In higher income countries, women are more likely to have digital devices and good access to health information. And thanks to inspiring and informative femtech apps and interventions, they can make informed decisions about their health. The worrying question is, what about women who don’t have access to a smartphone? Or don’t speak the language the content is published in? Or have low literacy skills? The GSM Association suggests that more than 40% of people in lower- and middle-income countries (LMICs) will still be offline in 2025. And more of them will be women – across LMICs, women are still 10% less likely than men to own a mobile phone, so miss out on this vital information access point.
Women’s health and the next billion users
For femtech, the next big challenge and the next big opportunity is the emerging markets. Google refers to it as ‘the next billion users’, while academics call it ‘the digital divide’, but both look at the restrictions a lack of technology places on sections of the global population. Discovering innovative ways to cross the barrier with good female health information is being actively pursued by forward-looking companies.
Given women’s phone ownership is lower, how do we reach them with digital health information? Family or community phones are one option. We have seen group listening in countries like India and Bangalore, where families listen to voice calls rather than just an individual recipient. In the mMitra project, voice calls start with a jingle (sung by our very own Head of mHealth, Gayatri Koshy) to indicate that the call is coming and give everyone time to gather around to listen. The Grameen Village Phone Program, effectively shares a phone with the wider community rather than just a family unit.
But it’s not just phone ownership that creates a problem, it’s also often the availability and expense of data. Sub-Saharan Africa has one of the lowest mobile phone penetration rates in the world with only about 23% of the population using the mobile internet. Technology steps in again. Project Isizwe in South Africa sets up free wifi hotspots in walking distance of low-income communities. Project Loon provided wifi in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. With evolving technology, there is nascent demand for women’s health information from the next billion users.
Once technology is in place, there are still accessibility issues for women. The delivery format matters because globally women are 9% less likely to be literate than men; that divide opens to 22% in Southern Asia. Voice-based programmes are being used to overcome literacy barriers. The Aponjon programme in Bangladesh provides women with maternal health knowledge through weekly voice messages. Women who used the programme were three times more likely to score highly on maternal healthcare knowledge questions. Women living in poverty in Bangladesh were successfully given the information they needed to understand maternal and child health.
Yes, technology can find ways to lower the price of handsets, to freely provide data, and even deliver programmes in clever ways, but societal issues still haunt us.
Societal barriers for femtech
The Indian state of Gujarat made headlines in 2016 for banning unmarried women from using phones. According to the Hindustan Times, a village elder said: “Why do girls need cell phone? Internet is a waste of time and money for a middle-class community like us. Girls should better utilise their time for study and other works.”
The Harvard Kennedy School also identified four key issues that limit women’s and girls’ use of mobile phones in India including “maintaining purity for marriage, patrilocal exogamy (women go to live with their husband’s family upon marriage), subservience, and prioritization of caregiving”. Technology is an endless possibility; someone, somewhere can build what you are dreaming of. Will society accept it? That’s a whole other battlefield.
But change is happening.
Femtech is powered by inspiring women. It’s an industry of women developing solutions for women. From hardware innovations such as Coroflo which helps mums who may struggle with breastfeeding, to MomConnect which has reduced mother-to-baby HIV transmission rates down to just single digits in South Africa. The future of women’s health needs to involve the next billion users and technology must support women who are just discovering the power of digital.
Caitlin is the Innovation Director at Thrive. She works with technology clients and partners to look at how the intersection of technology and language can create a better user experience.
For more insights on femtech and the future of women’s health, download our free white paper, Digital opportunities for women’s wellbeing, on the link below: