FemTech leaders are harnessing technology, community, and a culture of innovation to create a healthier, more equitable future for women.
By Vicky Zhou, Director and Partner, and Sam Juraschka, General Manager and Chief Product Officer, BCG Digital Ventures, and Susan Schriver, General Manager and Partner, BCG
What As momentum builds to address the gender gap in health, few people may realize that it wasn’t until 1993 that clinical research was required to include women. This startling fact helps explain why, for hundreds of diseases, women are diagnosed an average of four years later than men and are more likely to be dismissed by doctors, experience adverse drug reactions, and die of heart attacks.
When it comes to FemTech, only 3% of the 2,700+ US digital health deals since 2011 have focused on women’s health, despite women making 80% of health care in the United States and spend 29% more per capita on health care. That men.
With these sobering realities in mind, and the promise of technology and cultural change to create a more equitable future in healthcare and beyond, BCG Digital Ventures (BCGDV) recently launched a quarterly panel series called InnovateHer. Because BCGDV works at the intersection of corporations and startups, we are proud to feature both startup founders and corporate leaders on our panels.
For our first panel on the topic of reinventing women’s health, we brought together the leaders of FemTech, Priyanka Jain, founder and CEO of Evvy, the first at-home vaginal microbiome test; Alyssa Atkins, founder and CEO of Lilia, an egg freezing concierge service; Bruno Van Tuykom, founder and CEO of Twentyeight Health, a company focused on making birth control more affordable and accessible; and Colby Holtshouse, US Maternal Health Business Unit Leader at Organon, a leading pharmaceutical company focused on women’s health. The panel was hosted by Vicky Zhou, Healthcare Partner and Director of BCGDV, and Sam Juraschka, Chief Product Officer of BCGDV.
The broad discussion began with an overview of some of the biggest gaps in the women’s health space today before moving on to the innovative solutions these companies, and others in the market, are creating to improve the state of health. equitable health care for women. Here are some of the top gaps we see in women’s health today, as well as the opportunities to address them.
Despite technological progress, medical care still tends to treat problems rather than prevent them.
For a variety of reasons, from the cost of treatment to access, health care still tends to be reactive. A reactive approach is not only more expensive overall, but also leads to suboptimal long-term results, disproportionately affecting women.
For example, medical research is passive when it comes to looking at female-specific biomarkers. The composition of the vaginal microbiome, which measures and tracks the unique signals that women’s bodies constantly emit that may play a role in broader female health outcomes, may be responsible for the most common conditions affecting women such as recurrent urinary tract infections, bacterial vaginosis, yeast infections, IVF and fertility issues, preterm labor, cervical cancer progression, and much more, however, this information is not used to provide more accurate care. Health startups are starting to focus more on discovering and harnessing the vaginal microbiome, but overall, many of the biomarkers doctors use to define whether someone is healthy or sick are still based on middle-aged, medium-sized white men .
Fertility is another example of how proactive medicine has the ability to empower patients. One of the ways to start measuring fertility is to determine the ovarian reserve through blood tests and vaginal ultrasound. This tells patients how many eggs they have and how they compare to others in their age group. These are very important indicators of a patient’s ability to become pregnant or when she might enter menopause. This test has the potential to empower women to take control of their reproductive future through better fertility planning.
Despite advances in many areas of women’s medicine (eg, breast cancer survivorship), significant gaps in maternal care remain
Recent CDC figures reveal that the US maternal mortality rate increased from 20.1 to 23.8 deaths per 100,000 live births between 2019 and 2020, with rates for non-Hispanic black women (55.3 deaths per 100,000 live births) significantly higher than for non-Hispanic women White and Hispanic women.
Few devices exist to mitigate preterm labor, postpartum hemorrhage, and other complications, and not enough pharmacological innovation is being done in those areas.
When a baby is born before full term, each day spent in the NICU instead of with his mother has a profound effect on his development. Screening and diagnosing women at risk of preterm labor, and then monitoring contractions once labor begins to help prolong the time in the womb, can be very beneficial to the health of the newborn.
Also, for 60 to 90 days after delivery, women should receive better monitoring and treatment for postpartum depression and hemorrhage. Postpartum hemorrhage, in particular, can occur up to 12 weeks after birth and causes blood pressure to plummet, depriving the brain and other organs and potentially leading to death. Before recent advances, it had been almost 20 years since a device was developed to treat postpartum hemorrhage.
Lack of access to care prevents girls and women from ensuring their own health
Half of Americans in their 20s do not have primary care physicians, and many do not invest in follow-up care or have the ability to pay for basic sexual health services. In some places, the nearest OB-GYN is several hours away, adding physical burden to financial ones.
Historically, barriers to knowledge and care have disproportionately affected underserved and underrepresented people: women and Black, Indigenous and other communities of color, low-income people, and immigrants.
So what can be done? Our InnovateHer panelists presented some solutions, both technological and social, for your consideration.
Asynchronous telemedicine is consolidating
New platforms are coming to market that allow patients to transmit information to a doctor who can review and respond electronically. Video-based, or synchronous, medicine was vital during COVID, but engaging healthcare involves much more than just video visits.
Additionally, many patients lack sufficient broadband Internet for video telehealth or live in homes where privacy is impossible. Therefore, the ability to message a doctor and provide medical information for answers, home tests and prescriptions securely and confidentially is becoming more available to women in a variety of life situations, including in underserved communities.
New technologies are making egg freezing more viable
While egg freezing is often discussed in the context of career, many women are taking advantage of technology to optimize and extend their reproductive window.
Startups that are making egg freezing more accessible and affordable are helping, but it remains a price women often must pay until more employers, insurance companies and governments subsidize the procedure.
Companies are thinking about equitable distribution of health care for women at all income levels
In the United States, an FDA-approved device can be used in many hospitals and settings. But delivery systems behave differently in low-resource settings like “safety net” hospitals, where there are significantly greater challenges with budgets and resources.
The same is true in low-income countries. Startups and traditional companies are more motivated now to completely reinvent the device itself; for example, in places where there is no reliable source of power or where syringes are not readily available. They also approach training and education differently and work to justify investments in expensive technologies like those that treat postpartum hemorrhage by explaining the risk of not intervening early.
Additionally, startups, and even businesses that rely on traditional revenue models, are beginning to bypass the old gatekeepers of information and care, such as hospitals, employers, and insurance companies. They are forming consumer associations, working with social impact funds, and marketing their innovations directly to the people who need them most, empowering women to take control of their own health and manage their treatment options for themselves.
Take a look at the panel in its entirety below:
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