Gender Disparities in Healthcare and the Rise of Femtech
Women make up 50% of the human population. We are
caretakers, leaders, and changemakers, and we have an
empowered role in today’s society. Yet, at this very moment, we
are still fighting for our rights. It was 400 BC when Agdonice
disguised herself as a man to learn medicine, becoming the first
female doctor and gynecologist. In 1848, the first convention for
women’s rights was in the Seneca Falls Convention. We have
seen a staggering amount of progress in raising awareness and
action for gender inequality in areas such as education and labor
work. Even so, feminists are fighting and working together to
smooth the remaining rough edges of gender equality.
Gender equality in healthcare
First of all, what is health? According to the WHO, health is “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. Both males and females face health disparities, yet women experience a majority of them.
Society is structured in a way where women are more vulnerable to mistreatment where healthcare quality was compromised, making them more prone to illnesses and early death. And why is that?
Cultural ideologies and practices.
These gender differences give the rise to inequality, systematically empowering one gender, and oppressing the other. These inequalities can lead to disparities in health outcomes. The simplest example of this is when a woman gains access to reproductive health services — these services are considered as ‘fertility control’ when it’s actually for that woman’s whole wellbeing.
Sadly (and disappointingly), one of the reasons women’s healthcare was pushed is due to taboos. Menstruation and menopause are subjects that even to this day, some people do not feel comfortable discussing . Researchers have conducted five times as many studies into erectile dysfunction, which affects 19% of men, then a premenstrual syndrome, which affects 90% of women. Only 2% of publicly funded research is dedicated to reproductive health when almost ⅓ of British women suffer from reproductive health problems in their lifetime. The market size for erectile dysfunction alone is expected to reach $2.95 billion in the U.S. by 2023.
The Underrepresentation of Women in Clinical Trials and Subjection to Physician Bias.
Back then in clinical trials, caucasian males the ‘normal test subjects’ or the ‘gold standard’ for trials as
Females were considered ‘complicated’ because their hormone levels as an additional variable, being significantly different from men’s
Scientists believed that women’s bodies were too expensive. Including women in research would mean that scientists would have to account for factors like the menstrual cycle and the possibility of pregnancy. Instead, scientists of the period chose to ignore these key differences.
And only about a quarter-century ago did the National Health Institute mandate that women should be included in medical research. Science has routinely failed to consider the extremely important and crucial impact of sex in medical research.
But that wasn’t the end-all be-all solutions. Treatment based on previous research is still being done. Healthcare is still compromised.
Women still remain underrepresented in heart disease and cancer research, when these diseases that are actually the leading causes of death for women. Another study in 2019 found that women, especially women the pregnant and elderly, continue to be underrepresented in clinical trials . Prominently, when women are included in these clinical trials, they still frequently fail to analyze sex-specific differences. This totally limits the ability to fully understand how sex can influence health.
In diagnosis, women experiencing pains were viewed as “hysterical, emotional, complaining, not wanting to get better, malingerers, and fabricating the pain, as if it is all in her head” from a 2018 literature review of 77 medical articles on gender bias in the patient-provider encounter as it related to pain. These sayings were embedded in gendered norms, not actual biological differences. As a result, chronic pain is attributed as psychological rather than somatic thus receiving less pain medication and more psychiatrists and antidepressant referrals.
“There are significant differences in the ways that men and women experience many diseases and drugs, and until this problem is solved, women will be forced to make do with therapies that may be of limited benefit,” says Heather Bowerman, the CEO of Dot Laboratories.
Stigma, rooted in thousands of years of history in treatment, research, and diagnosis.
The Rise of Femtech
In these past few years, the #MeToo movement brought so much awareness to gender disparities and rights. For example, awareness brought up on the pink tax, a form of gender-based price discrimination, with the name stemming from the observation that many of the affected products are ‘feminine”.
But, what is Femtech?
A term that was first coined by Ida Tin in 2016, the CEO of Clue, a female health app.
Innovations designed to support, improve and promote women’s health.
Since then, we have seen an explosion of new solutions and innovations focusing on women’s health problems to reproductive healthcare to fertility monitoring devices.
Let’s see one of femtech’s most popular products.
The 2nd app on the Health and Fitness category Top Charts in the App Store, Flo. The most popular female health and well-being app. Flo is currently used by 140M women, co-created with 80+ leading health and medical experts.
Flo uses advanced AI technology to help women of all age groups and reproductive health goals to monitor your period cycle, fertility, pregnancy to wellbeing, and mental health.
Other than that, we have Dot Laboratories. Dot Laboratories is developing a cheap and easy way to test female sex hormone levels and track them online. Spitting into a tube and mailing them back to Dot Labs that then deliver their health data on hormone levels in an app where the woman and their doctor can review. These tests can “ help end the sex bias in basic research and clinical medicine”, says Anula Jayasuriya a doctor who invests in life sciences companies.
The Femtech industry has attracted an estimated € 1B in funding in 2019, comparing to the previous record of € 650M in 2018.
Data Bridge, a research firm, predicts that by 2026 the global fertility industry could raise up to $41 billion in sales, from $25 billion today.
Femtech appeals to half of the human population, holding so much economic potential. Frost & Sullivan suggests that femtech could become a $50 billion (£39bn) industry by 2025.
With the femtech industry growing exponentially, it is no longer an easy area to ignore. Just remember this affects half of the population. Yes. A market with 3.75 billion people. I don’t think this would count as a ‘minor’, ‘small’, or ‘irrelevant’ market anymore.
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Liu KA, Mager NAD. Women’s involvement in clinical trials: historical perspective and future implications. Pharm Pract (Granada). 2016 Mar;14(1):708.
Holdcroft A. Gender bias in research: how does it affect evidence based medicine? J R Soc Med. 2007 Jan;100(1):2–3.