International Women’s Day: Female Health – Can we afford not to make Femtech a priority?

IWD

This year’s International Women’s Day theme is #InspireInclusion and, once again, the day asks us all to imagine a gender-equal world. To mark this day, Vicky Bertenshaw, our Industry Engagement Lead has written a blog on how FemTech (Female Technology) is developing and discusses her own experience working across this field. FemTech has rapidly gained momentum in recent years, revolutionising women’s health and wellness. With the aim of addressing the unique needs and challenges faced by women, FemTech combines technology, innovation, and healthcare to empower women in various aspects of their lives.

In healthcare, this still seems a long way off when we consider that, according to the WHO, the UK has the largest gender health gap in the G20 1. Additionally, the Women’s Health Strategy for England has previously reported that more than 4 in 5 (84%) women responding to their survey had, at times, felt that their healthcare professionals were not listening to them2. Women are regularly diagnosed with illnesses later than men leading to worse patient outcomes. For example, large percentages of debilitating female conditions such as endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) often go routinely missed and undiagnosed3.

So, what is going on? Equality and diversity issues are high on the NHS agenda, as is patient and public involvement. We also have access to more data than we’ve ever had before so why is there still such a gap in health between genders?

Not surprisingly, the answer to this is complex, it is a culmination of governmental priorities, funding, research, communication, economic growth and investment. As I’ve delved into the world of ‘FemTech’ over the last two years I’ve learnt a huge amount about women’s health, inherent biases, adoption and investment cycles.

Sports and technology concept. Sports-tech. Wearable computing.

If you haven’t heard of the term ‘FemTech’ before it simply refers to ‘Female Technology’; the collective name for technologies that address female health needs, often providing a personalised and inclusive experience (it is also not limited to cis-women). Femtech can encompass conditions specific to females, such as menopause, menstruation, maternal health and ovarian cancer for example, but also conditions (especially chronic) that disproportionately affect females, such as headaches, migraines and ME/CFS (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome).

In terms of why some women don’t feel listened to by a healthcare professional, the reasons are myriad and not dissimilar to the reasons other demographics also have poor health outcomes (cultural sensitivities, lack of open questions, access and caregiving responsibilities, non-inclusive or too technical language used, incongruence of perceived risk, reliance on significant emendations in GP notes, lack of time and perception of judgement).

The Women’s Health Strategy for England states that, although women in the UK on average live longer than men, women spend a significantly greater proportion of their lives in ill health and disability when compared with men and are also under-represented when it comes to important clinical trials. This has meant that not enough is known about conditions that only affect women or about how conditions that affect both men and women impact them in different ways4.

Female Health

But something interesting is happening in female health innovations and technology, where they are still often viewed as ‘niche’ and a ‘subset of healthcare’5. A staggering perception when women literally make up half of the population. Last year I joined a FemTech roundtable with the Department of International Trade Northern Powerhouse and the British Consulate General Houston where the discussion turned to investment bias and market misconceptions in FemTech solutions. Any investor putting capital into anything ‘new’ or ‘innovative’ is likely to make some poor investments, however, it is widely theorised that, when this happens within FemTech innovations, this is seen as evidence that FemTech does not work and it is not a good investment, therefore further branding it as an industry that, as always suspected, was simply ‘too niche’. This is further compounded by existing gender disparity in the venture capital landscape. General wellness solutions often become subsumed under the Femtech umbrella, diluting the significance of real technological innovations and successes within the pool. FemTech companies are also often founded by females who have experienced health problems or inequities themselves and, whilst this is not uncommon at all within entrepreneurship, many female-founded FemTech companies are seen through sceptical eyes as merely ‘passion projects’. Even news sharing can be difficult, with many social media sites censoring women’s health posts when algorithms incorrectly categorise anatomical terms as explicit content6.

FemTech is not niche though, far from it. FemTech companies have shown unprecedented exits (where an entrepreneur sells their company to investors or another company, usually at a high profit)7 and it was also one of the industries that didn’t revert back to pre-pandemic levels of investment. The McKinsey Heath Institute recently reported that investments in closing the women’s health gap could add years to life and life to years, as well as potentially boosting the global economy by $1 trillion annually by 2040 (if you need to look that up, like I did, one trillion is a million million or 1000 billion!). Women, on average, spend 25% more time in poor health (on average, a woman will spend 9 years of her life in poor health and the majority of these will be in her working years). There are ten conditions that heavily lead to disability in women and these alone contribute to 50% of the entire GDP lost, yet only 1% of the global health budget is invested into these ten conditions and any other women’s health condition (beyond oncology)8.

We often talk about ‘levelling up’ within GM and the gender health gap plays a pivotal role in this. For example, 10% of women leave the workforce due to menopause related symptoms9, many more reduce their working hours or do not go for promotions due to the same reasons. At MFT alone, women make up 80% of the workforce10. A strong case where a combination of change in policy, workforce support and innovative symptom reporting tools could improve economic growth from women within the peri-menopausal/ menopausal age bracket.

What are Health Innovation Manchester (HInM) doing to play our part in closing the gender health gap? Well, we have recently supported several FemTech innovations through funded accelerator programmes, including the menopause app Balance (HInM financially supported a research piece into GP coding of menopausal symptoms, ‘false’ diagnoses of UTIs in menopause and cultural reach of the symptom reporting app) and Kuppd, a company utilising novel materials and 3D printing techniques to create perfectly colour matched, customisable and sustainable breast prostheses for women who have undergone a single or double mastectomy (HInM financially supported a research study between Kuppd, Man Met University and Print City looking into the data files needed for accurate printing prototypes). HInM has also supported The Real Birth Company, a hugely inclusive platform delivering relevant, up to date, evidence-based antenatal information. HInM have also supported the launch and review of applications for HIN’s South London FemTech Accelerator as part of the Digital Health London Accelerator in conjunction with Mills and Reeve.

How can we as individuals continue to #InspireInclusion and work to close this gap? It can start simply with conversations and education; get comfortable discussing the female body in health situations, gender disparity in disease research, the gender health gap and economic opportunity in rooms where funding and investment are discussed. Take a look at some companies delivering incredible and life-changing innovations such as Yoni Health, Europe’s first period biobank, collecting and storing menstrual blood for medical research or Roche’s human papillomavirus (HPV) self-sampling solution. Research what is happening locally and find advocates and allies (a handful are suggested below but there are many, many more doing great things!):

  • Jane McDermott (Head of Operations, Collaboration and Impact, NIHR Policy Research Unit in Healthy Ageing at The University of Manchester) is leading work on an ongoing consultation project to engage all the voices of women across GM in what our future might look like (directly linked to the GM Women’s Health Strategy)
  • Sheni Ravji-Smith (Assistant Director of OD & Good Employment, NHS GM ICB) has been hosting regional panel events and system workshops focusing on menopause support for the health and social workforce within GM to support the GM Women’s Health Strategy
  • Dr Sally Jones (Reader in Entrepreneurship and Gender Studies at Man Met Uni) is currently exploring gender and the STEM entrepreneurial ecosystem through a Leverhulme International Fellowship
  • Charlotte Lewis (Principal Associate in Commercial Health at Mills and Reeve and Co-Vice Chair of the Health and Social Care Council at Tech UK) is a women’s health and Femtech advocate, providing legal, commercial and strategic guidance relating to commissioning, contracting and collaborating. Charlotte has recently published a FemTech article for Laing Buisson’s Healthcare Markets journal here
  • Prof Carol Atkinson (Director of Research for the Faculty of Business and Law at Man Met Uni) has a portfolio of research work, including the effect of the menopause on work and productivity.

 

Female health has been deprioritised for far too long and female health innovation has been lagging behind. We need to understand how data and AI can potentially level the playing field. AI’s capability to process vast amounts of data, identify patterns and make predictive analyses makes it a promising fit with the difficulties in diagnosing menopause and its myriad symptoms. Female symptoms of certain diseases can also differ from the typical male symptoms and improving sex disaggregated symptom data is vital to prevent AI from being trained to recognise patterns that are based on the inherent bias that male symptoms are the default.

With evidence stacking up regarding the economic impact of poor female health and the economic opportunities associated with innovations in this area, can we afford not to make Femtech a priority?

 

Sources:

1 Women’s health outcomes: Is there a gender gap? – House of Lords Library (parliament.uk)

2 Results of the ‘Women’s Health – Let’s talk about it’ survey – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

3 The missed disease? Endometriosis as an example of ‘undone science’ – PMC (nih.gov)

4 Women’s Health Strategy for England – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

5 Unlocking opportunities in women’s healthcare | McKinsey

6 Social media sites censor women’s health posts as pornographic (thetimes.co.uk)

7 FemTech-Landscape-2021.pdf (pharmiva.com)

8 Closing the women’s health gap: A $1 trillion opportunity to improve lives and economies | McKinsey

9 Menopause and the workplace | NHS Employers

10 Gender-Pay-Gap-Report-2022-Published-March-2023.pdf (mft.nhs.uk)

 

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