By Caitlin Dalton, Innovation Director
Changes in women’s health are happening. New technologies and digital tools are starting to reach the people who need them. Better screening programmes are developing, as well as conversations at government level.
But to borrow the words of Claudia Flores, civil rights litigator, law professor, and director of the Global Human Rights Clinic, we should still be “impatient for change”.
That’s because although there are women’s health wins worth celebrating and de-stigmatising shifts, such as the campaign for paid miscarriage leave in the UK, sometimes progress feels too slow. Particularly for women living with health conditions neglected by medical science.
We look at the inspiring breakthroughs in women’s health, while shining a spotlight on the challenges to further change.
Progress can only happen if investment floods into women’s health. And on the face of it, this is happening. In 2021, the total investment in women’s health hit US$1bn for the first time and investment in femtech is predicted to hit more than US$1tn by 2026.
But in context, these figures aren’t so positive. According to Forbes, just four per cent of all healthcare research and development spend is focused on women’s health. For digital health – the cutting edge of healthcare – that figure is five per cent. Investment in women-led companies overall has plunged by more than a quarter globally since pre-pandemic times, and they currently attract less than two per cent of venture capital.
There are enduring workplace disparities. While women form a large proportion of healthcare providers and junior researchers, men continue to hold nearly three-quarters of leadership positions. This is despite a commitment to gender equality by medical organisations surveyed in the 2021 Global Health 50/50 report.
Personalised health tech
But there are green shoots in health tech.
For example, the emergence of personalised health resources in higher income countries.
Widening internet reach has enabled women to access a wealth of generalised health information. But they’ve previously had to rely on social media to get personalised advice; to share experiences and interact with other users and consume curated algorithm-driven content. It’s empowering but not always trustworthy.
Fortunately, health tech platforms are now delivering personalised health information, from hormone testing start-ups like Grip to period product subscriptions that fit your cycle, such as TOTM. And wearables encourage women to better manage their health, by supporting health diagnostics, telemedicine consultations and fitness goals.
Digital solutions in low-income countries have their own successes and challenges, as we’ve already explored. But more technology platforms are prioritising the delivery of health information to the ‘next billion users’ – those global populations getting online for the first time.
And beyond digital health platforms, new medical devices are giving hope to those who experience pain that is unique to a woman’s body. OCON Healthcare‘s IUB Ballerine is a 3D intrauterine device that provides long-term, reversible, hormone-free contraception and could one day replace the often-uncomfortable traditional T-shaped IUDs. OCON also believes that the device could deliver medicine into the uterus. This could treat various medical conditions and avoid invasive procedures. A device truly designed with women’s needs in mind.
The challenge of screening access is also being tackled by technologists, entrepreneurs and clinicians. Earlier screening, and more of it, could mean early diagnosis and treatment of women’s health conditions.
Current access is uneven, and the pandemic has damaged screen rates even further. For example, according to Devex, up to two per cent of breast cancer patients in India are diagnosed in stage one of the disease, compared to up to 70 per cent in the US.
But new devices have the power to make a big difference, such as the iBreastExam, which is going through clinical trials. And significant new women’s health testing programmes are promising. Early results from the Forecee programme show that the new Women’s Cancer Risk Identification (WID) test detected nearly a third more women with breast and ovarian cancer than current genetic testing. These screening programmes and devices will save millions of women’s lives and are on the horizon.
Tackling the data gap
Tech breakthroughs might even improve the gender data gap and redress the root disparities in health research.
Large amounts of data about women and their bodies are being collected by tech companies, for the first time in many cases. While this raises a moral debate about data use and privacy, it has the potential to help undo decades of research neglect, such as the damaging decision by the US Food and Drug Administration to exclude women of ‘childbearing potential’ from clinical research studies.
If we can find the right way to use data, we could start bridging the gap. There are companies already leading the way, including Natural Cycles, which shares anonymised data with university researchers.
Scanning the horizon
There are plenty of challenges ahead. When will social media companies stop censoring pictures of women’s bodies? And will healthcare research and development spend on women’s health ever match men’s health?
There’s a real need to expand women’s health technology and shift its focus from pregnancy and maternal health, reproductive health, ovulation, fertility, menopause, and women’s cancers towards a myriad of everyday health concerns. These include osteoporosis and bone health, violence against women (classified as women’s health by the World Health Organization) and the unique challenges facing women with disabilities.
But we are slowly changing the agenda, through many women using their voices for good, and the advancement of health tech that could improve the lives of all.
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: