Femtech addresses the healthcare needs of women
Women represent half of the global population. Yet inexplicably, there has long been a concerning lack of focus—and for that matter, funding, and innovation—aimed at the biological needs of women of reproductive and post-reproductive age.
Fortunately, a positive shift is taking place towards more advanced and specific digital healthcare for women. The so-called ‘femtech’ (female technology) industry has belatedly begun to deliver on the promise of solutions using wireless connectivity to help address women’s health issues.
A global healthcare challenge
All over the world, billions of women face a plethora of health-related challenges – from reproductive health, pregnancy, and maternal care to exclusively female chronic diseases like cervical and breast cancer, polycystic ovarian syndrome, and endometriosis (growth of endometrial tissue outside of the uterus) – a disease associated with severe, debilitating pelvic pain and infertility among other symptoms. According to the World Health Organization, endometriosis affects roughly ten percent (190 million) of reproductive-age women and girls globally.
Other chronic diseases, such as osteoporosis, arthritis, and hypertension, while impacting both genders, are more prevalent in women and must be managed differently. On average, 38 percent of women worldwide suffer from a chronic disease, accounting for one-third of female mortality.
Meanwhile, at a broader healthcare level, women need better access to appropriate health services and treatment options while overcoming gender inequalities that exist throughout society, such as underrepresentation in medical trials. Put simply, women’s health should be one of the world’s biggest concerns.
Gender bias in healthcare
However, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that it requires special attention, women’s healthcare is too often mistakenly treated as a ‘niche’ market.
That’s despite women in the U.S. making around 80 percent of the healthcare decisions for themselves and their families, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. What’s more, health spending during women’s reproductive years is significantly higher than their male peers; for example, in 2019, average annual health spending for women aged 19 to 34 was more than double that of men in the same age range (data from the Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker).
Yet women’s health accounts for a mere four percent of the overall funding in research and development for healthcare products and services, says research firm Frost & Sullivan. According to McKinsey & Company, approximately one percent of healthcare research and innovation is invested in female-specific conditions beyond oncology. Rarely are statistics more damning.
Healthy growth potential in healthcare
There are signs of a femtech revolution, however. In 2019, the femtech industry reportedly generated $821 million in global revenue and received $592 million in venture capital investment, according to financial data and research firm PitchBook. Such figures may seem reasonable at first glance, but we must stay focused and consider that women spend an estimated $500 billion annually on medical expenses.
Still, femtech is trending upwards. And not before time, especially since women are 75 percent more likely to use digital tools to track their health than men, according to Frost & Sullivan, whose research also estimates women’s health technology to have a market potential of $50 billion by 2025.
Clinical diagnostics, medical device, and healthcare companies have a major opportunity to exploit this trend. More importantly, femtech can deliver vital improvements across pelvic and uterine health, urogenital and menstrual health, general health and wellbeing, nutrition, fitness, and mental health for women.
Wireless solutions emerge in healthcare
We are in the midst of a surge in digital healthcare solutions and wireless devices that target women’s health – for example, tracking and monitoring menstruation, fertility, pregnancy, breastfeeding, menopause, and more.
At CES 2023 in Las Vegas, Movano Health introduced a future iteration of its medical-grade Evie smart ring for women, which will monitor health metrics to help users better understand the timing of their menstrual cycle, including menstruation onset and ovulation windows. The device also offers support for menopausal symptoms through insights delivered to an app on a paired smartphone.
As John Mastrototaro, Movano Health’s CEO and Director, explained to TechCrunch magazine, monitoring women’s temperature through the course of the month, as well as their heart rate, makes it possible to track and predict, for example, when the period is about to start.
Elsewhere at CES 2023, Withings demonstrated a version of its hands-free home urine lab, which sits under the front rim of a toilet bowl. It monitors menstrual cycles by tracking hormone levels. The device can even help screen for bladder and ovarian cancer, the company says.
A smart breast pump
One example of an established ground-breaking femtech solution is a smart hands-free breast pump designed to track pumping sessions. Swiss company Medela’s Freestyle Hands-Free Breast Pump uses wireless connectivity enabled by the integrated Nordic nRF52832 SoC’s 2.4 GHz multiprotocol radio to link with the user’s smartphone. From the mobile, users can view their pumping session data, monitor the device’s battery life, and record and view their freezer supply of milk.
The lightweight in-bra system—made up of the pump, two collection cups, four breast shields in two different sizes, and two membranes—was designed on the back of the company’s extensive research to optimize breast milk output and comfort, says Annette Brüls, CEO at Medela.
A fetus monitoring patch
Another Nordic-powered product making a mark is a fetal heart rate and movement detector designed for use in the final trimester of pregnancy. Launched by China-based company Extant Future, the Modoo patch records the fetus's heart rate using passive sonar technology, as opposed to the ultrasound Doppler method traditionally used.
Modoo uses an audio sensor to detect vibration on the wearer's skin. This signal is then amplified, and the data filtered using the Nordic nRF52833 SoC’s powerful Arm Cortex M4 processor with a floating point unit (FPU). The filtering uses algorithms that reduce background noise and track changes over time.
The results are transmitted using the Nordic-enabled Bluetooth LE connectivity to the user's smartphone, where the fetal movement and heart rate curve are analyzed using several years' worth of reference data to help identify signs of intrauterine distress, such as hypoxia. The data can also be securely relayed to the wearer's physician for further analysis.
According to Jiliang Ma, Founder and CEO of Extant Future, it is common in the last months of pregnancy for expectant mothers to be required to record up to three hours of fetal movement each day. This can be an inconvenient undertaking when at home or at work. Modoo aims to provide a viable alternative for home use, says Ma.
Disrupting the market for healthcare
Further disruptive technologies, including AI, machine learning, big data, and the IoT, can help drive innovation in interactive digital health applications for women – particularly when it comes to prevention and screening. For instance, one study by Lehigh University, Pennsylvania, used AI for cervical screening, which proved to be several times more efficient than Pap smear and HPV tests.
There is endless potential for wireless connectivity to help femtech massively disrupt the women’s health market and improve the lives and livelihoods of women everywhere. It’s up to the whole population—not half of it—to make this objective a reality.