Emerging Technologies

Femtech is transforming women's healthcare. But it must include everyone

A Los Angeles women has her blood pressure measured at a health event.

A Los Angeles women has her blood pressure measured at a health event. Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson (UNITED STATES - Tags: HEALTH SOCIETY POVERTY POLITICS)

Marily De Alba-Gonzalez
Coordinator, AI and Machine Learning , World Economic Forum
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  • Femtech is expanding rapidly, but it needs to be fully inclusive of Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) women.
  • BIPOC women face particular discrimination in receiving equitable healthcare new technology must take into account.
  • Inadequate BIPOC health data is one particularly challenging area.

Technology is increasingly being used to improve women’s healthcare. Femtech, coined in 2016 by Danish entrepreneur Ida Tin, is a rapidly growing industry of devices, software and other technology applications revolving around women’s physical and mental health. The femtech industry reached $2.5 billion in funding in 2021, and it is expected to be worth almost $50 billion by 2025. Femtech start-ups are paving the way towards a more consumer-centric form of healthcare through accessibility and personalized healthcare solutions. Though the growth of femtech is increasing healthcare access to women, it is crucial to involve Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) women throughout the life cycle to ensure the deployment of responsible and equitable technology.

While there has been substantial growth in research and development spending on healthcare products, only 4% is allocated to women’s health. Medical sciences have ignored the physiological differences between men and women and thus neglected women’s healthcare. Despite the disparity, current femtech devices in the market are already beginning to address neglected and under-researched women’s health issues, such as menstrual health, menopause and pelvic care. For instance, the first period tracking apps were released in 2013, and by 2021 at least 50 million women worldwide were using a period tracking app. On top of that, more than half of expectant mothers in the United States use pregnancy apps for prenatal care. There is a clear need for accessible and convenient solutions to women’s healthcare needs.

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It is important to acknowledge BIPOC women face particular challenges when it comes to their healthcare. Due to intersectional circumstances, such as race, ethnicity, income, education and more, BIPOC women are subject to health disparities and discrimination, which has resulted in significant obstacles to obtaining proper diagnoses, treatments, and adequate care experience. For example, Black women face higher rates of infant mortality and maternal mortality, which can be attributed to different intersectional factors including implicit bias and structural racism. Black women in the United States increasingly seek out Black doctors to avoid racism, discrimination and unconscious bias when it comes to their health.

The tech bias

Furthermore, medical devices are being criticized for their racial bias. For example, there are multiple cases of exhibited biases when using thermometers, x-rays and pulse oximeters on people of darker skin tones. In fact, studies show that forehead thermometers are 26% less accurate for Black patients when compared to oral thermometers. Wearable devices and the greenlight technology utilized for tracking physical activities such as heart rate, have been shown to produce inaccuracies, particularly on individuals with darker pigmentation.

It is also important to acknowledge that technology rarely is unbiased, and femtech itself can be a perpetrator of medical racism. It is vital to address these shortcomings to ensure the creation of an equitable market product. Femtech companies should recognize the need for equitable datasets and diverse medical research to address biases present in existing algorithms. Prior to 2018, genomic studies of disease were lacking diverse representations, with only 10% Asian, 2% African and 1% Hispanic data. The scarcity of diverse data has caused implications for treating diseases that not only affect BIPOC women, but also other populations. Addressing these deficiencies in health data and products is one step toward providing BIPOC women with better healthcare.

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In addition, each iteration of femtech innovations should collect data ethically and with the goal of improving the healthcare outcomes of BIPOC women. Data has become a commodity, and medical data is viewed as something that should be shared freely to help those who can benefit from it. The data collected by femtech products are particularly sensitive and intimate, and can possibly be shared with third parties. Hence, users should be informed how their data is being used and where it is stored, to ensure transparency and privacy protection. It is important that femtech is held accountable for distributing responsible technology, protecting users’ privacy, and making changes to ensure equity and consistency.

Equally important, femtech companies can help create affordable and accessible technology to serve low-income BIPOC women. In a period poverty study by U by Kotex, 35% of Black respondents and 36% of Hispanic respondents shared that they struggle to buy period products. Some femtech start-ups encompass affordable and reusable period products such as menstrual cups, making them accessible to women who may not have the financial resources to purchase traditional menstrual products. These femtech products can mitigate multifaceted burdens that stem from period poverty such as missing school or lost wages.

The femtech industry can positively impact the lives of women. In 2022, 70% of femtech companies analyzed by McKinsey had at least one female founder. The involvement of women in women-centric products is important, but it is critical that its workforce is diverse and inclusive to address systemic racism. BIPOC women can play a crucial role in achieving this goal, given their unique perspective on the intersecting challenges related to gender, race, ethnicity and socio-economic status.

BIPOC women must be part of the conversation to create responsible and equitable medical technology. The femtech industry has the potential to revolutionize BIPOC women’s healthcare.

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