Sep 14 2022
Patient-Centered Care

What Is Femtech, and How Is It Evolving in Healthcare?

The field of women’s health isn’t new, and the term ‘femtech’ only became popular in 2016. Since then, the field has grown, but women are still underrepresented in the health IT market.

The field of women’s health has been around for millennia. The Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus, which addresses conception, pregnancy and contraception, dates to around1800 B.C. and is one of the oldest known Egyptian medical documents. However, “femtech” is a new term in women’s health. Clue founder Ida Tin coined the term in 2016, which legitimized an area of technology innovation often ignored by investors.

“Like other female health tech entrepreneurs, she noticed that mostly male-dominated investment firms struggle with the language to discuss female biological health. Soon after, the #MeToo movement caught fire on social media worldwide and helped popularize ‘femtech,’ together with public demand for improved gender equity in technology and venture capital,” says Susan Solinsky, director of HITLAB’s Women’s Health Tech initiative and co-founder and chief growth officer of Ellipsis Health. “The introduction of the term ‘femtech’ was a step toward more open discussions. Eventually, the investment community recognized that women’s health is a subcategory of digital health worthy of significant investment.”

More women are joining STEM fields, which is leading to more women with the skills to create solutions that didn’t exist before.

“We’re seeing a direct relationship between solutions for women’s health and the number of women in STEM,” says Brittany Barreto, co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit FemTech Focus.

Adoption of femtech has risen alongside the adoption of hybrid and virtual care delivery models during the pandemic as patients and providers have become more comfortable with digital health technologies.

In its “Femtech Landscape 2021” report, Femtech Focus notes that femtech includes reproductive, menstrual, sexual, pelvic floor, vaginal, oncological, bone, brain, autoimmune and heart health. Femtech products typically fall under one of six categories: medical device, software, therapeutic drug, consumer product, consumer service or consumer app. No matter the modality, femtech companies are disrupting the ways healthcare providers reach patients.

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Femtech Explained: A Look at Health IT Use Cases

Over the years, femtech has evolved beyond female reproductive health to encompass a broader scope of health. It can now refer to technology related to health conditions that affect women differently or disproportionately, such as autoimmune disorders, migraines and cardiovascular disease.

“When 80 to 90 percent of people with a disease or disorder are women, then it’s a women’s health issue,” says Barreto. She says that disease can also present differently in men and women, which is something that needs to be considered when creating diagnostic tools.

It’s also important to consider how gender bias can impact care delivery in areas such as pain management and mental health.

“The COVID-19 pandemic drew our nation’s attention to many gaps in mental healthcare access and delivery in our country,” she says. “We know now that women are nearly twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with depression. Gender is increasingly acknowledged as a social determinant of mental health in the U.S., and more investment in this area is critical to helping us better understand the root causes behind these inequities.”

DISCOVER: How telehealth offers relief for prenatal care and newborn health.

Many femtech companies are providing individualized care programs with a unique understanding of the factors that affect women’s mental health. One such technology, LunaJoy, offers online, holistic mental health counseling and therapy for women. Another is Flo, an app designed to help women manage their menstrual cycles in addition to tracking and monitoring moods. Femtech companies have the opportunity to screen and monitor gender-specific mental health issues and provide digital interventions, according to Solinsky.

She says femtech should design mental health interventions for women experiencing antepartum and postpartum depression, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, complex menopause issues, perinatal mental health issues, eating disorders, traumatic births or miscarriages, and intimate partner violence or gender-based violence.

Barreto says there are several new femtech solutions she’s excited about, including Rosy, an app focused on sexual dysfunction founded by an OB-GYN; Juno Bio, an at-home vaginal microbiome test; Irth, an app where women of color can review doctors and hospitals based on their prenatal, birthing, postpartum and pediatric experiences; and NUA Surgical, an Irish femtech startup that developed the SteriCISION C-section Retractor to improve access and visibility during caesarean deliveries. 

Tips on Femtech Implementation for Healthcare Organizations

Femtech adoption is not only happening on a patient level. Many traditional, brick-and-mortar healthcare organizations are adopting femtech. For example, Oova is an at-home hormone test paired with a smartphone app that translates test results into a personalized fertility plan. It was created in collaboration with the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York by a doctor who personally experienced challenges in her fertility journey.

“Once patients receive their results within the app, their hormone levels and any relevant symptoms are reported in rea time on the Oova provider dashboard and can be viewed at any of the 100 partner fertility clinics across the U.S.,” says Solinsky.

Another femtech company, Babyscripts, offers a software that logs maternal health vitals using remote monitoring. Barreto says the company offers its app as a white-label product for healthcare organizations.

“Many women will have more faith in a technology if it’s offered through their personal doctors,” she adds. “It’s a great business model, but these companies need more funding to achieve further success.”

Healthcare organizations looking to adopt or implement femtech must invest in quality data with accurate gender representation, which can often be an issue in clinical trials.

Susan Solinsky
To implement technologies that impact women’s health outcomes positively, we need accurate, quality data about conditions that pertain exclusively to women.”

Susan Solinsky Director, HITLAB’s Women’s Health Tech initiative; Co-Founder and CGO, Ellipsis Health

“To implement technologies that impact women’s health outcomes positively, we need accurate, quality data about conditions that pertain exclusively to women, such as contraception, fertility, maternal health, gynecology, menopause and women’s oncology, and general health conditions where women’s differences are not comprehensively known or studied, such as Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular conditions, autoimmune diseases, migraines, and osteoporosis,” says Solinsky.

She explains that innovation depends on representation, which means transparency into which groups receive early access to interventions and clinical trials is important. However, Solinsky is optimistic about opportunities to use digital health tools to collect de-identified patient data for real-world evidence research.

“There are also new research channels being built, such as at-home, tech-based testing and monitoring solutions for a wide range of acute and chronic women’s health conditions, that contribute to a growing pool of more diverse, patient-generated health data and support the future of individualized care,” she says.

Hiring a femtech or health IT consultant can also help healthcare organizations identify the right solutions from companies that can meet their needs.

Addressing Patient Data Privacy in Women’s Digital Health

Many femtech companies have increased their data privacy efforts in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in June. While data privacy has always been a concern, the court’s decision has upped the stakes for femtech companies collecting patient data about menstrual cycles as well as other types of data relevant to pregnancy and abortion.

“The decision opens the door to legal ramifications for women seeking abortions in many states. It raises serious concerns about whether abortion or even menstrual cycle-related data from women's health apps could be subpoenaed and used for criminal prosecution,” says Solinsky.

Many femtech companies are underfunded, according to Barreto, meaning that a lot of the app privacy policies are “cookie-cutter.”

“If they had the resources, they could have awesome privacy policies,” she says. However, “for the most part, regardless of policy, law enforcement can subpoena data.”

LEARN MORE: Find out how a zero trust architecture can keep patient data secure.

She recommends that those who menstruate avoid logging missing periods or sending Facebook messages about related topics to avoid that data being used against them as femtech companies work to address the situation. Those who are concerned about their data being shared can reach out to femtech companies to ask about their privacy policies.

Solinsky is worried that investors and stakeholders will see data privacy concerns as a barrier for early-stage femtech companies looking to scale across states.

“Still, I have also seen a wave of encouraging support from the investment community,” she says.

While femtech companies find ways to further protect patient data in the face of policy changes, Solinsky says, accurate data collection enables accurate diagnostics, better care delivery and more comprehensive research, in addition to the overall reduction in care costs.

The Future of Femtech in Healthcare

The definition of femtech is still evolving. Much more investment in research and innovation is needed to understand and address this complex digital health sector fully, says Solinsky.

“Women make up half of the population and account for 80 percent of consumer purchasing decisions in the healthcare industry, but femtech companies have received only 3 percent of all digital health funding since 2011,” she says.Femtech is by no means a niche market.”

Barreto says that it’s important to look at the femtech ecosystem holistically to identify areas of heavy saturation or underrepresentation. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, but Barreto notes that there are few femtech companies focused specifically on heart disease. And while there are dozens of menstruation-focused femtech solutions, “period poverty” is still a major problem in the U.S. Historically, with a lack of billing codes for women’s health solutions, femtech startups had to focus on direct-to-consumer products, which were often expensive. This resulted in solutions often designed for affluent white women who were able to afford them rather than solutions focused on improving health equity for all.

EXPLORE: How precision health prioritizes individual circumstances over a one-size-fits-all approach.

Solinsky says the future of femtech will encompass the full spectrum of health needs experienced by cisgender women and those who identify as transgender or nonbinary. Another impact of the pandemic was that it brought to light many access and care disparities in healthcare, leaving many hungry for change.

“Innovative entrepreneurs are seizing the moment to reimagine a future of healthcare that is simplified, personalized, affordable and flexible; this is the transformative role that technology can play,” says Solinsky. “Likewise, tenacious femtech innovators can thank macro shifts in public attitudes that have taken place over many years for helping to destigmatize women’s sexual and reproductive care, paving the way for their ideas. That’s why giving a name and fame to femtech in investment circles is so essential. We must remember that health is human; to change healthcare, we must first change minds. Words and language have a real impact on what’s possible.”

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