By Krissie Ferris, Research Analyst, Centre for Health Solutions
As demonstrated in our recent report, ‘Realising digital-first primary care: Shaping the future of UK healthcare’, digital technology is transforming everyone’s relationship with healthcare. It is improving our access to health information and advice, helping us to connect more readily with healthcare professionals, and enabling us to track and manage our own health and wellbeing. However, to date, when it comes to women’s health, innovations have historically been underfunded and under supported. This is set to change with the rise of ‘FemTech’, an umbrella term for wearables, smartphone apps, diagnostics and other products designed to enhance women’s health and wellbeing. In recognition of last Sunday’s International Women’s Day, this week’s blog highlights why increasing investment in FemTech innovation is set to pay dividends!
The case for investment
FemTech is a term that first appeared around six year ago with the launch of a number of apps and services designed to improve and monitor women’s reproductive health. These included period tracking apps, fertility and pregnancy apps and apps to monitor pelvic health. This change coincided with the surge in the feminist movement; the massive technological revolution producing real-time personal data; and the shift, in the traditional patient/doctor relationship with ‘patients becoming more like consumers’.
Women’s health issues have been on the fringes for far too long. Just four per cent of all healthcare R&D funding is spent on women’s health, yet it represents a yearly economic burden of $500 billion. Currently just 10 per cent of global investment goes to female-led start-ups.1 Indeed, female FemTech founders have struggled to obtain investment and there is a lack of female investors who understand the need and demand for FemTech. In 2019, interest in FemTech finally took-off, with the industry predicted to become a $50 billion industry by 2025.2
Challenges for female healthcare
While 51 per cent of the population are women, they make around 80 per cent of healthcare decisions for their families, and are 75 per cent more likely than men to use digital health solutions.3 Yet, historically, conversation around female health topics, especially periods and menopause, have been taboo subjects. On top of this, women have previously been excluded from the data that goes into medical decision-making. In 2018, the US regulator, the Food and Drug Administration, acknowledged the years of neglect in research and development involving women and the resulting health disparities in the delivery of healthcare, and announced a plan to focus more on therapies for women.4 Nevertheless, many of the medicines women use today have not been tested on women (or even on female animals). As a result, there is a lack of real insight as to how medicines affect women, consequently medicine pose more risk to women.5 For example, eight out the ten drugs removed from the US market between 1997 and 2000 were withdrawn because of side effects that occurred mainly or exclusively in women, and between 2004 and 2013, women in the US suffered over 2 million drug-related adverse events, compared with just 1.3 million for men.6 7
Moreover, research into women’s reproductive healthcare is underfunded. Less than 2.5 per cent of publicly funded research is dedicated solely to reproductive health, yet one in three women in the UK will suffer from a reproductive or gynaecological health problem.8 However, it’s not just reproductive health – indeed there is a high prevalence of chronic diseases among women – sometimes one to two times higher than that in men – like Alzheimer’s. Women also have five times more mental health issues than men, three times more heart attacks compared to men and are seven times more vulnerable to autoimmune disease than men.9 Technology can increase accessibility to care, especially in developing countries and also rural areas – and especially for screening for chronic conditions, prenatal scans, cervical cancer screening etc.
Examples of FemTech changing women’s healthcare
Not that long ago, women had to visit a clinic on the third day of their period to find out if they were fertile, this can now be done on a smartphone. With the increasing prevalence of tracked health data comes a wealth of opportunities to create new data-driven treatments that can be used to improve the lives of millions of women. There are several companies working towards making specialised solutions for women with such conditions based on their physiology and psychology.
Examples include Elvie, a company that manufacture device that strengthens the pelvic floor and who recently launched a cordless breast pump; Lia, a discreet, biodegradable pregnancy test; Hey Vina!, a female friendship-making app; and L, an ethical, female-targeted condom brand. Earlier this year, Elvie signed a strategic partnership with the NHS to tackle urinary incontinence in women (a common problem affecting an estimated one in three women costing the NHS £233 million every year but in the majority of cases can be reduced or eliminated by pelvic floor muscle training). Through the partnership, the NHS will supply the Elvie Kegel Trainer, a connected device which takes women through a five-minute Kegel exercise to strengthen their pelvic floor muscles.10 Other examples, include:
- Natural Cycles which is the first FDA-approved digital contraceptive, and uses basal body temperature and optional urinary tests of luteinising hormone to determine women’s fertile windows and track periods.11 With more than a million registered users globally, the database is one of the largest collections of menstrual cycle data ever compiled, and data from consenting users is being used to advance scientific understanding of menstrual cycle characteristics and fertility.12
- NextGen Jane: a smart tampon system (analysing blood from used tampons) to track biological changes predictive of diseases including endometriosis which is a chronic, painful condition in which uterus cells grow elsewhere in the body, affecting one in ten women. On average it takes 7.5 years from onset of symptoms to get a diagnosis.13
The Future is FemTech
FemTech is now firmly placed to change the face of the women’s healthcare industry, with numerous digital technologies and data-driven solutions set to change women’s experience of and access to healthcare. While FemTech companies still have to overcome a number of challenges, investing in FemTech can help solve problems far beyond the target issue, reaping high returns on investment.