For holistic caregivers, technology is filling the large gaps in female health care via the Femtech collective of companies
DIGITALLY-DRIVEN WOMEN’S HEALTH, dubbed “Femtech,” encompasses companies focusing on gynecological and maternal care, female reproductive cancers, fertility solutions, general wellness and more. The Femtech collective is “big data” analytics, artificial intelligence and a spotlight on a traditionally male-centered health care system that, given the evidence, has left women behind.
Through data curation and driven by female founders in many cases, Femtech companies seek to give women control over their health, and health options that have been difficult to access to unavailable in the past.
Current Femtech products in the field, launching or in development include:
A secure digital communication tool that brings health care professionals, patients and family caregivers together on one platform; fertility-tracking mobile apps including pre- to post-partum care; digital blood tests to detect pregnancy complications; a cooling bracelet and app to help combat hot flashes; birth control delivery and education apps for underserved women and Medicaid populations; hormone health and tracking apps; and mental health apps to help combat anxiety (which women are twice as likely to experience).
Ida Tin, the Danish-born founder of a period and ovulation tracking app, is credited with the term “Femtech.” The idea for her app came from holding a cellphone in one hand and a digital temperature device in the other while wishing she could combine the two to track her fertility days rather than manually taking notes.
Failing women’s health — childbirth
The U.S. health care system, by many metrics, is failing women’s health.
The most developed nation in the world sees three times the deaths during childbirth of Norway and Sweden, and half of U.S. women report problems with their medical bills as compared to 2% in the U.K., according to research by the Commonwealth Fund. As recently as 2010, before the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as “Obamacare,” health plans were not required to include maternity coverage, and out-of-pocket spending for women was not limited. Preventive care, including cancer screenings, became free of charge, and women could no longer be denied insurance because of a preexisting condition — which at the time included pregnancy.
“Living in the U.S. was the first time I experienced being uninsured,” said Roosa Tikkanen, a researcher at the Commonwealth Fund who has lived in a number of countries around the world and coauthor of a study on women’s health in 2019. “Right after I had graduated from Harvard. To me, that was the biggest irony of all — a fresh master’s in public health graduate, having just spent nine months learning how unfair the American health care system can be — experiencing it myself. In so many of the other places I’ve lived, I was assigned a national health insurance patient number automatically, like when I moved to England, I was sent the name and address for my primary care doctor and my National Health Service number in the mail.”
Munira Gunja was also an author on the study.
“I have lived in the U.S. my whole life and work in this field and still find it confusing to navigate our health care system,” said the researcher, who was pregnant at the time. “I am pretty terrified of receiving a surprise medical bill, despite the generous insurance coverage offered through my employer and despite the many calls to my physician’s office and the hospital billing department to ensure everything is covered.”
Driving the Femtech collective development
Femtech has years under its belt, developing behind the scenes before the poorly-understood term even came to the mainstream. The early days of Femtech were focused on reproductive health, fertility and periods, but it has since expanded to holistic health, including hormonal awareness, mental health, fitness and other drivers of women’s health and happiness.
The opportunity? Lowering the much-higher cost of health care for women, for individuals and for insurance companies.
The U.S. Department of Labor in 2015 reported that women between ages 19-44 had health care expenses that were 80% higher than those for men of the same age group, largely due to the cost of and need for reproductive services. For U.S. employers, untreated menopause symptoms cost $770 per patient per year, and COVID-19 exacerbated many health care costs for women.
Medical and alternative health care specialization has at the same time been a boon and a detractor for women, unintentionally moving away from holistic care and disconnecting various health care service providers.
“As we continue to super-duper specialize, we get very good at one particular focused area, and there is a lack of holistic care and so…people fall through the cracks,” said Sonya Borrero, director of the Center for Women’s Health Research and Innovation at the University of Pittsburgh, speaking to S&P Global.
Failing women’s health — U.S. support systems
Researchers found that emotional stress for U.S. women is a large barrier to achieving good health, leading to various health issues.
Research found that 1 in 3 women in the U.S. report emotional distress, much higher than women in most other countries, with only 1 in 10 reporting regular emotional distress in Germany and France.
Social determinants are a large source of stress for U.S. women — finding child care, job security, schools and education, diet and exercise, and meal prep and access to affordable, healthy food for families.
“We know that other countries spend a lot more on these ‘social’ factors than the U.S. does, providing job and income protection, and guaranteeing the right to low-cost or free education — not to mention paid maternity and sick leave,” Gunja says.
American women in the Commonwealth Fund report rated the quality of their health care the lowest out of the 11 developed countries.
Prior to the ACA in 2010, Gunja compared being a woman to be a “preexisting condition” unto itself. Most states’ insurers in the individual market were able to charge women higher premiums than men, and Medicaid was only available to women with very low incomes, who were pregnant or who had disabilities.
Overcoming a history of exclusion
Much of U.S health care research has been male-centered, dating to 1977 when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration excluded women of childbearing age, the majority of women, from taking part in drug trials.
Race has also played a part in exclusion of health care opportunities, as opposed to other developed countries. In the U.S., three Black mothers die giving birth for every white mother, according to research from the Commonwealth Fund. U.S. women of all races have traditionally suffered from few workplace protections and usually must choose between work and family. Maternity leave is usually unpaid, unlike other developed countries, and child care, which is subsidized in many countries, in the U.S. is out of pocket, usually at great expense.
The end goal for the Femtech collective is providing all women, regardless of status, access to health care they can afford, and learning from other efforts to apply best practices from around the world, as Femtech is far from simply a U.S. venture.
“I think patient-centered care is a big [goal],” Gunja says. “That is, ensuring patients feel empowered about their health care, and are educated by their physicians to make informed decisions on their health. It’s also about coordinating and integrating clinical care with other support services and forming a relationship with not just their primary care physician, but with a social worker, and therapist, and nurse, and the whole community of people that are involved with care.”
RICK VACH is editor-in-chief of Chiropractic Economics.