29 Nov How Digital Technology Can Help the Life Sciences Industry Address Gender Issues in The Future?
Insight by: Jon Warner
According to many studies in recent years, women in general in the US spend just over 25% of their lives in poor health or disability, compared with just under 20% for men, despite live 4 years longer on average. This is because health systems were originally set up predominantly for men, in their relatively modern form, about 150 years ago, when women’s influence was close to zero. In addition, much of the drug research by life sciences companies in the past was heavily based on males, with few, if any, women in clinical trials. This has been slow to change, with women much more likely to suffer with more access issues and even when they can gain access are more likely to receive poorer medical advice and diagnosis. This has improved somewhat as women have increasingly become physicians (today, they represent one third of primary care doctors and one fifth of specialists), but the care gender ‘gap’ is still significant.
Despite the gender disparities, one very encouraging change that is happening across healthcare is the increasing use of digital health and virtual care, which has the potential to increase gender fairness and equity, if it is managed well. In practice, this means we need to develop and deploy digital tools and solutions that specifically aim to create that greater access, education, and information that help to empower women to receive better care at all levels and throughout their lifetime. To this end, the following are 5 steps that should be considered by all health focused organizations (in public and private sectors) and by entrepreneurs, developers and startup companies evolving new digital tools in particular:
- Use digital health tools to expand the reach of services to aid women’s health
Women living in areas of deprivation are likely to find it harder to access key services, such as maternity care, sexual health, and menopause – For example, telehealth appointments can increase the reach of screening services in areas where access is otherwise difficult and at home use tools and ‘apps’ can be rendered to be available to offer information and collect it.
- Seek to improve the quality and focus on health consultations
Other than access, digital health has a major role to play in equipping women with the information they need to facilitate discussions about how to get professional medical advice. In other words, women need to have more relevant information at their fingertips to ensure that they can ask the right questions of clinicians in consultations and then make wise decisions as a result. This is a critical foundation for a better future system, as much recent research has suggested that around 50% women feel they are largely ignored by their clinician and over 60% suggest that they have been diagnosed incorrectly by a healthcare professional -three times higher than men report.
- Build a system to ensure more timely and accurate diagnosis by health professionals
Whether its heart disease labeled as anxiety, an autoimmune disorder attributed to depression, or ovarian cysts chalked up to “normal period pain,” many women’s health issues are likely to be misdiagnosed or dismissed by many doctors as something less critical. Once again, the underlying issue here is education and training. There needs to be planned mandatory training for all healthcare professionals (and makes in particular, of course) on women’s health.
- Providing better and more complete health information
UK research, earlier this year, on over 100,000 women, found that that only 17% of females feel they have enough information on menstrual wellbeing, 14% on gynecological cancers, 9% on the menopause, and 8% other gynecological or ‘below the belt’, conditions. In addition to providing more spaces for women to access information about their health, digital tools can become part and parcel of women’s daily lives. The potential for entrepreneurs, startups and other health-focused organizations here is huge and the relatively to provide information to women and understand more about their bodies is significant.
- Increasing innovation and investment in the ‘Fem-Tech’ space
‘FemTech’ is typically focused on technology-based solutions to conditions that solely, disproportionately, or differently affect women, biological females and girls. These can include solutions geared towards menopause, menstruation, pregnancy, uterine fibroids and fertility. However, in 2021 only 3% of total Digital health and Health Tech funding went to so-called ‘FemTech’ startups (and it will be similar in 2022). This clearly should change, and quickly, as more investment will attract more innovation.
In all 5 of these areas, life sciences companies can play a very significant roles in 3 main ways in my view:
A) By investing more significantly in research on women’s health issues,
B) by becoming a central hub for advice, information, and education on the many conditions that affect women in different ways, and finally
C) By sponsoring ‘femtech’ initiatives nationally including the development of many more digital health and virtual care solutions, both directly and indirectly though incubating third -party entrepreneurial and startup efforts
The best strategy to improve women’s health dramatically is to transition from a reactive to a proactive approach to ensure better outcomes for women. A large part of this is to adopt a ‘whole life’ approach or ‘lifetime health pathway’ with the right digital tools and technology to support women in every phase of their lives (youth, early adulthood, in pregnancy, in childbirth, in child rearing, in middle age, in menopause and in older age). It is not appropriate to simply apply digital tools and solutions designed for male health, as there are many differences that need to be accounted for. Perhaps more than any other single sector in healthcare, Life sciences companies of all kinds and sizes can become a champion of the women’s health cause and drive change in this landscape very quickly.