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Designing for women: exploring femtech solutions to close the gender health gap

Published: March 2024

Zoe Hill

Zoe Hill, Marketing Lead

Despite significant developments in medical devices over the years, there remains a gap in designing solutions that cater specifically to the unique needs of women. Women’s health is defined as the biological and general health conditions that often affect women uniquely, differently, or disproportionately.

In a recent report from the World Economic Forum in collaboration with the McKinsey Health Institute, it is quoted that investments addressing the women’s health gap could add years to life and life to years. This could potentially boost the global economy by $1 trillion annually by 2040.

While it’s well-known that, on average, women live longer than men, this seemingly positive aspect comes with a caveat. Women spend 25% more of their lives dealing with debilitating health issues, averaging nine years in poor health. This not only affects their well-being but also affects their ability to be present and productive in various aspects of life.

Imagine a young woman managing a chronic condition, only to encounter medical devices that feel like one-size-fits-all solutions, inadequately addressing her unique physiological and lifestyle needs. This scenario is all too common, necessitating an urgent call for a shift in the design of medical devices.

As a medical device design consultancy, we aim to increase the awareness of ‘femtech’ – a term coined to describe technology-driven solutions dedicated to addressing women’s unique health needs. Here, we take a closer look at just some of the challenges, and diverse healthcare requirements.

Under-representation in clinical trials

Clinical trials are designed to assess safety, effectiveness, and potential risks in real-world settings. However, when a significant portion of the population is underrepresented, the unique requirements of medical devices may be overlooked, making them less effective and potentially unsafe.

Historically, it was assumed that aside from size, weight, and reproductive organs, there were no fundamental differences between men’s and women’s bodies. In the 1970s and 1980s, a movement highlighted the disparity, revealing that women were not benefiting from advances in biomedical research and healthcare, often being underrepresented in trials.

Although the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US now mandates the inclusion of women in research they fund, pharmaceutical industry-funded clinical trials still struggle with low representation of women. A recent survey indicated that women make up only 29 to 34% of participants in early drug testing, this is due to several reasons but partly due to concerns about the financial and legal risks associated with participants becoming pregnant.

Companies like GSK are taking action to rectify this by reviewing trials, identifying mismatches, and partnering with advocacy groups. Addressing unconscious biases and designing inclusive studies are crucial steps towards closing the gender gap in clinical trials.

Gynaecology, menstrual health and fertility

In a UK government survey for a women’s health strategy, gynaecological conditions emerged as the top concern, and menstrual health ranked fourth.  

One significant issue highlighted was the lack of access to information, as only 8% of respondents felt adequately informed about gynaecological conditions like endometriosis and fibroids. Similarly, only 17% believed they had enough information about menstrual well-being.

Instances were noted where women felt unheard, particularly when pain was the primary symptom. Examples included dismissive statements regarding heavy and painful periods being considered ‘normal’ or that women would ‘grow out of them.’ Additionally, women shared experiences of prolonged interactions with healthcare professionals before receiving diagnoses, notably for conditions such as endometriosis.

A McKinsey analysis found a substantial funding gap. From 2019-2023, funding for companies focusing on erectile dysfunction and men’s health concerns was six times higher compared to endometriosis.

Despite this, an increasing number of femtech start-ups are entering the healthcare market, attracting private equity and venture capital investments. This trend is particularly noticeable in maternal health patient support, consumer menstrual products, gynaecological devices, and fertility solutions, as highlighted in a report from the World Economic Forum and McKinsey Health Institute in 2024.

We have worked in parallel on client projects with human factors and user research consultancy, We are Human. The team specialises in areas such as femtech. A recent case study of theirs highlights user experience research provided to Thiya, a company developing an at-home cervical screening test. The test takes the embarrassment, inconvenience and discomfort away, giving women the control to test and track results from their own home using an app.

Recognising that nearly all cervical cancers are caused by certain types of Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and are 99% preventable with regular screening, along with 1 in 3 women admitting to never taking up their offer of a cervical screening from the NHS, Thyia acknowledged the urgent need for change (We are Human).

thiya cervical screening device in packaging

At-home cervical screening, Thiya. Photo credit: We are Human

Digital healthcare has wide potential, with period tracking apps prominent in the femtech space. Among these, the Clue app, with 10 million monthly active users, stands out by helping women to sense of connection to women’s bodies and obtained CE marking as a Class I medical device in 2023.

Another noteworthy player is Natural Cycles, the only FDA cleared birth control app. Its natural and non-invasive approach introduces a revolutionary birth control option, empowering millions of users to opt for a hormone-free alternative.

Cardiovascular health

Research from the British Heart Foundation states that women are 50% more likely to receive the wrong initial diagnosis regarding cardiovascular health. Over a ten-year period, more than 8,200 women needlessly died following a heart attack. These deaths could have been prevented with the same level of care provided to men.

Chest pain is the most common symptom for both men and women, with 93% of all heart attack patents reporting this symptom. A similar percentage of men and women reported pain that radiated to their left arm (48% of men and 49% of women). More women had pain that radiated to their jaw or back and women were also more likely to experience nausea in addition to chest pain (33% vs 19%).

Women may be less likely to get medical help and treatment quickly, despite the warning signs so it’s crucial that education around symptoms is increased.

While the femtech movement is bringing in a new generation of diagnostic tools, products and services, the spotlight on cardiovascular women’s health lags the attention given to fertility. However, slowly, and surely investors are seeing the importance of investing in the space (Source: Abbott).

AI could in fact help the narrow the heart attack gender gap. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh combined data from 10,038 individuals (48% women) with suspected heart attacks to create an AI tool, CoDE-ACS. Validated on 3,035 additional cases (31% women) globally, the tool accurately ruled out heart attacks in 99.5% of cases, allowing patients to go home safely. It also identified those requiring further tests with an 83.7% accuracy, significantly surpassing current test accuracy of 49.4%.

The algorithm is now integrated into a mobile app to assist doctors in treatment decisions.

Bridging the gender health gap

To bridge the gap in women’s healthcare, the industry must continue to develop technology driven solutions. Designing medical devices for women requires a shift from a one-size-fits-all approach to one that recognises and addresses the unique needs of half the global population.

As a medical device design consultancy, how do we achieve this goal for our clients?

Firstly, the team responsible for designing the products must be diverse and understand the wide range of women’s health issues. Avoiding any unconscious bias in the process, we need a design understanding for all women, including those from different cultural, socioeconomic, age groups, and non-binary and transgender individuals.

A user-centric design perspective is crucial; approaching with empathy and sensitivity to the nature of femtech products and therefore, privacy, comfort and discretion are key.

Validating this through research and user studies with the correct level of representation ensures that devices will reflect the unique needs of women.

If you’d like to discuss more with our team, contact us.

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