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Tackling the gender gap in digital health research

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Jul 20, 2020

6 min read

How women's health tech companies are educating their users and moving the medical research field forward

2020 has shone a light on many longstanding challenges within the healthcare industry. Communities around the world have struggled to find accurate, up-to-date information to inform their health decisions. For women, however, these challenges are nothing new. From menopause treatment to mental health support, fertility tracking to sexual health and wellness, women have endured a difficult feat to find quality information that pertains to their specific health needs. This experience is a common effect of the gender health gap, or the differing health experiences between the genders that has led to the noticeable lack of education, data, and research in women’s health.

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Historical disparities in health research

For centuries, it was deemed unnecessary for health researchers to consider differences between the sexes. Medical researchers commonly hosted male-dominated clinical trials, believing that excluding women protected them from adverse effects in reproduction. This lack of female representation, as scientists and clinical trial participants, subsequently produced insufficient health data and minimal interest for health conditions and illnesses that disproportionately or solely affected women. Women’s Health Research explains that even in areas in which significant advances had been made in “lessening the burden of disease and reducing deaths” for women, lack of resources and interest reinforced a hastily one-size-fits-all approach to treat patients of all genders.

It wasn’t until the early 1990s that Congress mandated adequate representation of women in clinical trials to better determine health differences between the sexes. Furthermore, only in 2016 was a new policy implemented that required health researchers to explain the relevance of the sex variable in their analysis. Although these policies created major change for the future of women’s health, a culture of poor education combined with a lack of quality women’s health information had already become the norm. “Science builds on science. If you don’t have a foundation for women’s health research, it’s difficult to grow the literature,” explains Molly Dickens, physiologist and former Head of Content and Community at Bloomlife, a company that creates a smart-phone sensor and app for expecting parents. “Clinicians are then forced to operate in a space of incomplete evidence to make evidence-based decisions.”

Lack of Women’s Health Education

Poor education in many aspects of women’s health and wellness has led to misconceptions and misinformation that may be harming women of all ages. According to one study that surveyed US women on health knowledge, attitudes, and practices, 40% of participants in all age groups were concerned about their ability to conceive, but 20% were unaware that aging had adverse effects on conception. The same study stated that women 18-24 years of age had less knowledge about conception, ovulation, and fertility than older women, however, older women more commonly believed in popular myths and misconceptions surrounding women’s health fed to them through family, friends, and misinformed professionals.

The gap in women’s health education is also prevalent among medical professionals. One study found that fourth year residents in American obstetrics and gynecology residency programs reported a need for further learning in pathophysiology of menopause symptoms (46%), hormone therapy (54%), nonhormone therapy (69%), bone health (54%), and cardiovascular disease (64%). And another study reported that one-third of residency Program Directors admitted that their residency programs would not qualify residents to diagnose, treat, and counsel women with incontinence, vaginitis, domestic violence, preconception planning, or birth control.

Further divergence in women’s health education is seen through the separation of care between OBGYNs or female health practitioners and primary health providers. As one study suggests, women’s health providers are the top resource for female patients’ health education and information, however, these providers rarely communicate directly with primary care physicians or other specialists. This division not only reinforces that women’s reproductive and pelvic health is something separate, but it also creates a disassociation and potential misalignment in consultations of women patients. Siloed care is problematic as it leads to episodic misdiagnosis or conflicting treatments, especially if physicians at each point of care do not have access to the same patient health information or broader understanding of conditions unique to women.

The combined effect of poor educational resources for women and inadequate training for the physicians that treat them has left patients without the information they need to manage and maintain their health throughout their lifetimes. On this backdrop, women’s health technology companies—many of them led by women who have experienced these frustrations first hand— are creating their own health platforms to provide educational resources and alternative healthcare solutions.

Femtech’s opportunity to educate

Frustrated by centuries of limited research and educational tools for women’s health, companies in the femtech (or women’s health technology) space are taking this opportunity to create more accessible, personalized resources to educate their users and broader society about women’s health needs. The female-focused health space is bringing awareness to the gender health gap and taking it upon themselves to build a better curriculum for individuals who seek it.

“We worked closely with over 25 fertility doctors to write an evidence-based guide ‘Everything Egg Freezing,‘” says Brittany Hawkins, co-founder of ELANZA Wellness, a company that is now developing AI-powered digital tools to help fertility clinics better engage with patients. “Writing the book was a great start, but it was clear from both our research and our own personal experiences of fertility treatment that women’s diverse fertility journeys are still not well documented. A vital component of excellent care is that both fertility patients and doctors can draw on salient data to enable more personalized, holistic treatments, and that’s what we’re working to achieve.”

Femtech companies are narrowing the health education gap in every stage of life. MyMoonBox offers a 12 week program that allows women to better understand menstruation and PMS and how to lessen and eliminate symptoms. Loom provides in-person and virtual educational courses and resources across a variety of health topics including menstruation, fertility, pregnancy, parenting, and abortion. Rosy is a research-based app and community that connects women with low libidos to valuable resources to improve desire, self-esteem, and sexual health. Babyscripts is revolutionizing pregnancy care with a toolkit for tech-enabled prenatal and postpartum health solutions. And Gennev is a resource for women’s health in midlife and menopause that provides educational opportunities, connections to health and wellness providers, and curated products.

Some companies are even partnering with employers to provide better educational resources for employees and workplace leaders. “We can work with companies to provide their employees with a health and well-being concierge service for women and families,” states Rob Haggett, COO and Co-Founder of Caia. “We’re using technology to shorten the pathway to health information by providing direct access to curated content, digital health solutions, and a network of health practitioners to provide personalized care.”

Femtech is also striving to create better tools to assist and educate doctors. A Sydney-based startup, Baymatob, has created a medical hardware device that replaces the outdated cardiotocograph (CTG), commonly used to monitor contractions and the fetal heartbeat in labor, to provide better and proactive obstetrics data and monitoring for practitioners. Tara Croft, COO of Baymatob comments, “The hope is that by giving additional information and quality clinical insights, good decisions can be made to help both mother and baby, not only in the moment, but for the longer term health implications for both.”

The growth of the femtech industry will bring new and innovative women’s health resources along with the evidence to support them.

The Power of Data

As women’s health technology progresses to better serve and educate patients, practitioners, and broader society, femtech companies are collecting crucial data that will narrow the gender health gap and eventually inform the broader medical field. Molly Dickens of Bloomlife provides one example: “We have a physiology based tracker that is able to collect a very large data set very quickly. This kind of data has never been captured before: We have access to a physiological database that captures data longitudinally throughout a pregnancy, instead of in snapshots or one-time collections.” With groundbreaking data to call upon, women’s health as a field will begin to attract more researchers, scientists will begin to expand the literature, and ultimately better experiments, discoveries, diagnosis and treatments will be provided for female patients overall.

Sufficient women’s health data arms providers with the information they need to make informed clinical decisions and builds confidence in the patients they are treating. “Data is power,” explains Tara Croft of Baymatob. “Women will have clinicians with the best data and insights to make informed clinical decisions so that hopefully both mother and baby are taken care of in the best way possible.” The Femtech Collective launched the FemTech Re-innovations Database to compile a list of medical devices, technology, treatments, and pharmaceuticals in which women were excluded or not substantially represented in clinical trials or data analysis. The database is meant to highlight opportunity areas for femtech founders.

Even beyond informing standards of treatment, health data can serve women in a variety of ways. Self-recording symptoms, health behaviors, and concerns in a digital format allows women to track health trends over time and better manage their health. This data can also empower a patient to communicate more clearly and confidently with their physician. Tia, a women’s health app and in-person clinic, allows patients to record health experiences and symptoms through a mobile app and then gives them the opportunity to share and discuss trends with their physician during in-person or telehealth appointments.

Longitudinal data can also help employers better support the mental and physical health of their women employees: “With Caia, we’re able to collect rich data, securely aggregating it, and anonymously providing insights to organizations to demonstrate the health and well-being outcomes of their workforce,” says Rob Haggett of Caia. “This allows for deep understanding of what’s going on within organizations that will drive strategic support for employees.” Data builds understanding of the daily lives of individuals, acknowledging all aspects of a woman’s life (pain, satisfaction, discomfort, and pleasure) as real.

Relevant data ensures women’s very basic right to health. It allows doctors to provide more effective care to female patients and empowers women with more agency in their health outcomes. In the end, exhaustive datasets allow women to have better control over their health journeys and by extension, their realities. Dickens, who has recently co-founded a new organization called &Mother emphasizes this point, “Data collection actually helps women better understand what’s happening to and in their bodies. Ultimately, women can and should be trusted with information about their bodies.”

Looking forward

With revolutionary innovations in the femtech industry, the gender gap in health education and research is slowly narrowing, making women’s health a higher priority. As more data is collected in women’s health and wellness, new products will emerge that emphasize the health differences between the sexes and highlight the need for further allocation of resources to female specific health conditions. Re-educating a society is difficult, but femtech is leading the charge to enlighten doctors, patients, and the broader medical field about the health realities of women.

Megan is the Director of FemTech Consulting and the Sydney Ambassador for FemTech Collective. With her background in international relations and product management, Megan specializes in tech advocacy and user education.

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