The writer is the founder of TheaCare, a women’s health companion in India and curator of women’s health festival FemmeCon
Women’s health has historically been medically under-researched and culturally blindsided. This has been costing women not just their dignity, but also their lives. The rise of a new business category FemTech – technology specifically for women’s health – has the potential to radically transform not just how business has been done so far, but also how science has excluded women until now.
To begin with, women are underrepresented in medical leadership. They have been absent from medical research for centuries. It was only in 2016 that the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) framed policy that required sex to be considered as a biological factor for medical research. It was as late as 1993 that US federal law was enacted requiring women to be included in medical research funded by the NIH.
The landmark 2001 study ‘The Girl Who Cried Pain’, has shown how women are more likely to have their pain dismissed by doctors, and less likely to receive aggressive treatment when diagnosed. The International Pelvic Pain Society estimates that 61% of women suffering from chronic pelvic pain don’t even know what’s causing it.
According to a Leeds University research, women are 50% more likely to be misdiagnosed after a heart attack. Women are also more likely to be told that their pain is “psychosomatic”. Therefore PMS and PMDD continue to be considered a myth or a mental illness, even though they are mainly hormonal issues, with nearly 60 million women being seriously affected by it.
Given this, how can women write themselves back into a conversation, a gender-blind infrastructure, for the sake of the dignity and lives? FemTech – the use of digital health to manage health issues in women – is the reformed, inclusive, purposeful tech that is delivering on the promise of taking everyone along. It is an industry poised to be worth $50 billion by 2025.
However, many consider this too simplistic, especially in South Asia. Girls are still dropping out of schools in India because of lack of period products and disposal systems. Most women in India do not have access to technology. When basic amenities are inaccessible, the transformative potential of FemTech is questioned.
However, FemTech is more than just individual digital tools on a smartphone. It is a thought-intervention that inserts women into medical research with a much broader, rights-based approach to medicine that includes diagnostics, software and medical research. There are many FemTech organisations working to increase last-mile outreach of healthcare services for women, at affordable prices, disrupting the supply chain.
Menopause, which has been as stigmatised as menstruation in our culture, is now finally getting the attention it deserves, with different companies catering to this demographic through interventions in clothing, food or understanding hormonal shifts. Addressing the twin problems of painful invasive examinations and delayed diagnosis, menstrual blood from a “smart tampon” is being used to detect and diagnose endometriosis.
The breakthrough lies in the fact that a home-kits containing the “smart tampon” now replaces anxious visits to the doctor, and painful diagnostic procedures. More importantly it recasts menstrual blood as an important indicator of health, a useful tool that can help diagnose women’s illnesses instead of a “curse”, or just an inconvenience that must be managed for five days a month.
FemTech attracts almost only 1.4 % of the capital invested in healthcare overall, and 80% of VCs have not yet invested in women’s health. The patriarchy we see in our lives, impacts funding in the FemTech space as well. True, of late there has been a profusion of period and fertility tracking apps in the market, leading to the fear that FemTech may be unable to dismantle the patriarchal impetus to essentialise women as vessels of reproduction. However, over the years, that fear has definitively been put to rest among many, with a wide variety of FemTech products and services subverting traditional cultural taboos effectively.
Despite all its teething troubles, FemTech deserves more than just a chance. It needs investment. South Asia comprises nearly 25% of the world’s female population, but not even 1% of the FemTech investment is being made in this region. With FemTech, we have the power to de-stigmatise, radicalise, and feminise the non-inclusive patriarchal structures that have so far framed women’s health and autonomy.