It’s time to prioritise female health and wellness as we build back better
The UK’s National Health Service has been designed primarily by men, for men. Even in 2021, the majority of those in senior leadership positions (63%) are male, a startling figure when you consider that almost 80% of the NHS workforce are female.
Structural inequality in the healthcare system has contributed to a lack of understanding and investment into female health and wellbeing. This in turn has led to gaps in health services for women and in some tragic cases, unnecessary deaths caused by missed or delayed diagnoses. As a result, despite having a longer life expectancy than men, on average women spend a greater proportion of their lives living with ill health and disability.
As part of recent efforts to address gender inequality in healthcare, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) is developing a new Women’s Health Strategy. In response to the Department’s call for evidence, FemTech Lab - Europe’s first accelerator focused solely on female health and wellness – brought together experts from across the female health, wellness and technology spaces to participate in an evidence gathering exercise. This is what we found.
An alarming lack of research
Women are chronically under-represented in clinical trials. This is particularly true for those who are elderly, of childbearing age, have disabilities, or are from the LGBT+ or BAME communities.
The impact of this is two-fold. Firstly, it leads to the late diagnosis of serious conditions. For instance, women are typically diagnosed with heart disease an average of seven to ten years later than men. Delays like this often result in other chronic diseases being prevalent by the time of the diagnosis, impacting life expectancy and quality of life.
Secondly, it can lead to women being prescribed inappropriate treatments, which continues to be a global problem. For instance, between 2004 and 2013, US women suffered more than two million drug-related adverse events, compared with 1.3 million for men. Had more women been part of clinical trials, these outcomes could have been avoided.
Closing the yawning data chasm
An analysis of current literature illustrates a dearth in women’s health data. This must be addressed as a matter of priority if the DHSC’s Women’s Health Strategy is to achieve better health outcomes for women. Within the NHS, the collection of new in-depth women’s health data should become routine practice. Plus, an in-depth analysis of existing data is necessary. The resulting insights should be embedded into the NHS operating framework, so that they are readily available to medical practitioners to inform diagnosis and service pathways.
As well as medical data, the collection of patient feedback should be at the heart of any future transformation of women’s health services. It’s crucial to offer safe, inclusive spaces in which women feel confident to share their experiences - especially if they have felt let down, or not been listened to in the past.
Harnessing technology to improve outcomes for women
The area of female health and wellness technology is currently experiencing a golden age of growth and innovation. However, we feel that the solutions the FemTech industry is developing are currently being overlooked and underestimated by the NHS. From offering more accessible and immediate feedback options, to providing easy access to self-management education and support for women, technology has the potential to be a gamechanger for female health.
We suggest that the NHS accelerates deployment opportunities for female health technology and digital health companies in a variety of healthcare settings. Similar partnerships have previously been shown to be effective. For instance, FemTech company Elvie has successfully partnered with the NHS to distribute its urinary incontinence trainer to women suffering with a weak pelvic floor. So far, the partnership has saved an average of £424 per patient.
Additionally, we call on the NHS to close the data gap by working with health technology companies to collect and analyse women’s health data. The FemTech industry has a huge untapped resource of expertise in this area. Collaboration would stimulate research and generate insights into key women’s health topics, as well as catalysing innovation.
Though there are key areas in which the UK health system continues to underperform for women, there are clear paths for improvement. As the NHS recovers from the shock of the pandemic, it has a unique chance to use technology to build back better. We’ve already seen an acceleration in the digital transformation of health services as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, including virtual counselling and GP appointments. We hope that the DHSC will build on this momentum and see that there’s huge opportunity to utilise the services, products and software being developed by the FemTech industry to address healthcare inequality and improve women’s health outcomes.
Shakti Dookeran, Innovation Lead, Imperial College Health Partners
Amy Thomson, Founder and CEO, Moody
Jenny Thomas, Programme Director, Digital Health. London
Hannah Samano, Founder and CEO, Unfabled
Dot Zacharias, Co-Founder and COO, Nourish App
Nicole Leeds, Head of Marketing Strategy, Clue
Efftichia Dower, Commercial Solicitor, Stephenson Law
Karina Vazirova, Co-Founder, FemTech Lab
Terri Harris, Women’s Health Specialist and Head of Community, FemTech Lab