How technology can revolutionize women’s health care

In India, only 1% to 8% of breast cancer patients are diagnosed in the early, stage 1 period of the disease, compared with 60% to 70% in the United States.

NIRAMAI Health Analytix, a startup technology company based in India, has developed a hand-held device to screen for breast cancer. It’s just one example of a company leveraging technology to bring affordable health care solutions to women in emerging markets, where the high costs of medical equipment have previously kept these services out of reach.

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The company is one of four winners of the Global Women’s HealthTech Awards, organized by the World Bank Group and Consumer Technology Association to recognize “innovative startups that leverage tech to improve women’s health and safety in emerging markets.”

“These startups are using technology to help women in developing countries live longer and healthier lives,” said Makhtar Diop, managing director at the International Finance Corporation, in a video address announcing the awards during last week’s CES tech conference, which is hosted by the Consumer Technology Association. “They’re at the cutting edge of a growing market focused on women’s health … [with] the potential to reach almost $10 billion by 2024.”

Women have unique health care needs that extend far beyond pregnancy and fertility — which are often the focus of many entrepreneurs and investors. These encompass a range of areas, such as cardiovascular health, that present differently between the sexes.

Women are also typically the “chief medical officers” of their homes, controlling health care decisions for not only themselves but also their partners, children, and parents — a reality highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Recognizing this opportunity, a growing number of companies are narrowing in on technology solutions for women’s health.

When Eric Dy — co-founder and CEO at Bloomlife, a women’s health company based in San Francisco that works on prenatal care — first launched the organization in 2014, investors told him there was not a market for women’s health tech.

But the continued growth of telehealth and remote patient monitoring, combined with high-profile successes such as Organon’s acquisition of Alydia Health — a medical device company focused on postpartum hemorrhage — will bring more venture dollars into this space, Dy said.

Speaking at CES, he said companies such as Bloomlife still need to find a way to circumvent the issue of social media companies blocking women’s sexual health ads when they are labeled as adult content. But once they do, more funding will come in, more companies will go public or be acquired, and the women’s health tech sector could see tenfold growth over the next five years, he said.

“Women and women’s health are the force multiplier for our public health and our financial health and wellness.”

— Michelle Williams, dean, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

The women’s health tech market still faces obstacles ranging from the underrepresentation of women in studies to the stigmatization of women’s health conditions. The landscape is even more challenging in low-resource settings.

Lindsey Simmonds, co-founder and CEO at Intrepid Entrepreneurs, runs the Next Health Accelerator program to support women-focused health tech startups in Africa. One-third of the 235 applicants for the first cohort focused on menstrual health, she said, adding that the continent has “more of a nascent femtech space.”

And things are looking up for women’s health tech globally, she said.

“We’re just beginning,” Simmonds said. “I have every reason to believe women are taking health into their own hands and creating their own solutions.”

When given the resources they need, women are the ones best positioned to address the problems they face with the status quo, such as contraceptives that don’t work for them, Simmonds said.

Investors are starting to see that women’s health tech serves a market that controls the vast majority of spending decisions around health care.

“Women’s health is the root of public health,” said Michelle Williams, dean at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, during a panel discussion on women’s health at this week’s J.P. Morgan Health Care Conference.

Women make up 70% to 80% of the health care workforce, and they account for 66% of caregivers for the aging population, she said. They are also the most influential players in the $4.2 trillion wellness enterprise, which protects health before care is needed, she added.

“Women and women’s health are the force multiplier for our public health and our financial health and wellness because of the role of women’s health on family health and on community health,” Williams said.

Given the link between women’s health outcomes and the health of society at large, the health care industry should widen the aperture of how it thinks about women’s health tech, experts said.

Lynne Chou O’Keefe, founder and managing partner at Define Ventures, which invests in early stage digital health companies, called for serving women as consumers, as gatekeepers for the health care decisions in their households, and as drivers of health in their communities.

Experts also highlighted the need to center women in the design of digital health solutions, seizing this moment when much of health care has left the hospital and leveraging digital tools to bring health care to women.