In the previous Overseas Special from the last issue of Ewha Voice, we looked at femtech, the industry itself and its market, featuring prominent entrepreneurs and market experts both inside and outside of the country. However, a few questions regarding its impact beyond the business sector remain unanswered. Could femtech be the solution to the gender health gap? How does the industry affect women in the medicine sector? In search of answers to these questions, Ewha Voice sat down with various leading individuals in medicine who are raising their voices to support women in the medical field.
Padmini Murthy stresses partnership among diverse sectors to revolutionize women’s healthcare
For femtech to reach its full potential and fulfill its goal of promoting women’s health, it is important for companies, professionals, and students to all come together. The industry is currently in its infancy, which makes partnership between diverse sectors especially crucial. Among many sectors, health experts in academia are actively raising their voices to implement equal healthcare for women.
Dr. Padmini Murthy, a physician and professor at New York Medical College School of Health Sciences and Practice, has contributed to the global promotion of women’s health through continuous local efforts. Currently serving as chair of the International Health Section of the American Public Health Association, she is a globally recognized public health expert and activist on women’s health and rights. She started her career in obstetrics and gynecology after experiencing the discrepancy between rural and urban areas, rich and poor people, and especially between men and women.
“Women’s health and wellbeing are crucial for the whole society,” Murthy said in an interview with Ewha Voice, emphasizing the importance of a community-based approach. “It is high time women speak up for themselves and work with men to understand that women need their support in bringing some issues to the table.”
She expressed disappointment about the lack of a safety net, addressing the health needs of women. Especially during a difficult period like COVID-19, the lack of access to healthcare based on individual needs is a critical issue.
Nevertheless, women’s healthcare is undergoing a revolution and evolution. One of the strengths that femtech has is that by using technology, it addresses female biological needs hand in hand with health experts, much beyond promoting a beauty product. That way, health professionals are able to shed light on the challenges faced by women, letting the world know that past and present health technology and healthcare have not been specifically designed for women. Indeed, the femtech industry is powerful in the way it can work with women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).
“Femtech is definitely here to stay as women understand what their needs are through access to information, education and empowerment,” Dr. Murthy said. “As it is in its initial phase, it needs to reach out to people in STEM including medicine to see how they can work together. With proper planning and strategy, it will make a difference not only for women but for society.”
Dr. Murthy stressed the importance of working together and sharing best practices. By working with people from all areas of society, such as the private sector, academia, policy makers, and even students, she believes the femtech industry will be able to use the resources to the benefit of all. To enable such partnership, women should no longer be hesitant to talk about their health, as starting conversations is the way to reach out to everyone. Accurate, unbiased information needs to be provided based on health literacy.
Dr. Murthy ended the interview by emphasizing that everyone has their own role in the future of healthcare, including physicians reaching out to the general population about health problems and the femtech industry coming up with solutions. She advises individuals not to be afraid to ask questions about their symptoms, and to have roundtable discussions. The key is being in academia, where people can talk, interact, and figure out the existing problems.
“None of us have answers to everything, but collectively we can solve a lot. Thus, we should see health as a multisectoral entity and work at the grassroots together.”
"Femtech industry is powerful in the way it can work with women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics)."
Medical student Oriana Kraft gives a voice to women that they never had
The global femtech industry is now an essential market – no longer a “niche.” Along with innovative startups and venture firms emerging on the scene, another group is spurring the expansion of the industry: femtech experts. By busting taboos around women’s health and wellness, they are laying the groundwork for femtech and future prosperity. As experts share the ultimate goal of giving a voice to women that they never had, professions and occupations are of no importance.
Likewise, age is no barrier to learning and success. Oriana Kraft, a medical student at ETH Zürich(Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich), is currently at the forefront of the industry. From leading the ETH Zürich FemTech Summit as an organizer to participating in the EPFelles Podcast, a podcast channel which discusses a series of subjects spanning from relationships, health, great women in science and more, femtech expert Kraft endeavors to examine the link between gender and effective therapy in medicine. In our latest interview with Kraft, we spoke to her about her path into femtech, valuable experiences as a student interested in femtech, and her future plans.
In her third year of medical school, when she took part in a reproduction module, Kraft realized that women of reproductive age have been historically excluded from clinical trials and are often to this day left out. This was due to the concern that menstrual cycles and hormonal fluctuations can act as unnecessary and unpredictable variables in clinical trials. Medical conditions such as endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome, which affect ten percent of the female population, did not have effective therapies. The disturbing fact that there were no efforts being made so far to tackle such issues led Kraft to search for fundamental solutions, which is how she came across femtech.
“Femtech seemed like the only area that was trying to do something about the fact that there were no treatments or therapies for such symptoms,” Kraft noted. “Surprisingly, nobody in my class knew about femtech. How is it possible that I am in a room full of medical students and nobody has heard of this industry?”
This shocking occurrence led Kraft to come up with the idea of hosting the ETH Zürich FemTech Summit, which brought together top tech startups, researchers, doctors, and students to talk about innovations in women’s health. During the event, Kraft was pleasantly surprised by how there were a number of prominent male speakers. From Eric Dy, founder of Bloomlife, to Leon A. Boston, CEO of MobileODT, approximately 20 percent of the participants were male.
Regarding the engagement of men in the industry, Kraft stressed that such involvement has economic value given the fact that men are primarily the ones in charge of funding. In order to actualize the goal of men being involved in femtech, she highlighted that those already in the industry should help explain to men how they can fit in.
“From time to time, I see men asking questions of other women like his girlfriend, wife, or mother,” Kraft said. “Making it clear how men can get involved and that they should be involved is a pivotal role of those in the industry. We need to help those who are interested but feel uncomfortable because they might feel as if they are coming into the space of women where they do not belong.”
When asked about the subsector that receives the most interest, Kraft pointed out that pregnancy and fertility gain the largest amount of funding. Nonetheless, the two life cycle stages she had gone through as a woman herself, puberty and sexual activeness, are the sectors that attract Kraft the most. Concerning this issue, Kraft views that a community type-based solution will enable people to discuss these taboo topics more freely.
Furthermore, Kraft noted that women not engaging in medicine or healthcare should also put their framework in place. The undeniable fact that an exceedingly large number of drugs have never been tested on women, leading to immense side-effects, should be brought to light. As an illustration, women often do not acknowledge the early symptoms of heart attacks. Kraft claims that this is a repercussion of the traditional symptoms people are taught when it comes to heart attacks: clutching your chest and feeling pain, which are symptoms that manifest when men are experiencing heart attacks.
“The sole existence of femtech is contributing to women’s rights in a way because our fundamental right is access to quality health care,” Kraft remarked. “As the sustainable development goal number three is to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all ages, I think femtech is advancing the cause of quality health care for everyone. Women’s rights pervade all aspects of our society like it also touches our healthcare.”
Kraft noted that women not engaging in medicine or healthcare should also put their framework in place.
Dr. Alyson McGregor on how male-centric medicine endangers women’s health
Though diversity and inclusiveness enrich and strengthen the community, their presence is not always the case in reality. Otherness is a genuine experience. For individuals, being underrepresented gives new insight and allows them to see things that have never been seen before.
Actively being aware of the fact that there were more men than women enrolled when she was in medical school, Dr. Alyson McGregor, a professor of emergency medicine and co-founder for the Division of Sex and Gender in Emergency Medicine (SGEM) at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, has always been interested in women’s issues in medicine. After training in a heavily maledominated field, the specialty of emergency medicine, Dr. McGregor has always been keen on continuing the evolution for women in hopes of improving the health of women.
Dr. McGregor recalled how she saw “an empty room” when it came to understanding the medical issues surrounding women in research and advocacy when she first started working towards publicizing the issue. When she went to a national conference for emergency medicine physicians to present her didactic on the differences between men and women in emergency care, the room was empty: no physicians or emergency medicine professionals attended.
“Sitting there, I realized that there was more work to be done in raising awareness of this issue and that physicians in my specialty did not even know enough to know that this was important,” Dr. McGregor said. “It really served me well as I backed up and learned to find a group of like-minded women across all specialties in the United States. We formed Sex and Gender Health Collaborative and came together to dig out these issues to create a voice.”
Dr. McGregor revealed that by forming such a group of empowered women on a mission, she realized that they needed data. For instance, there was data that showed that women have different symptoms when having a heart attack due to their smaller coronary arteries. This prompted her to develop SGEM at Brown University so that they could start doing research on many conditions that have high public health significance to be added to the literature.
“I think it becomes easier to convince other researchers and doctors because data really speak,” she said. “Once my division started ramping up and publishing lots, the issues were getting lots of attention, which allowed us to have more robust conversations about what this data is showing.”
Dr. McGregor added that because the process of using male subjects for understanding the health of both men and women seems to be so ingrained that no one even questions it, there was initial resistance to the idea. However, the medical community, including practicing physicians and clinical researchers, just needed to be made aware.
“It is hard to, all of a sudden, say, ‘Well, I am a researcher, now I need to enroll both men and women. I need to analyze the data separately,’” Dr. McGregor said. “But I have seen, across the time frame, a natural evolution to medicine and science. There is this understanding that our science evolves and that it is never perfect right away.”
Dr. McGregor also highlighted the importance of reaching out to and empowering women who are not necessarily part of STEM to let them understand whatever sphere of influence they have, they can make a difference in improving women’s health. This is an idea she talks about in her book, “Sex Matters: How Male-Centric Medicine Endangers Women's Health and What We Can Do About It.” She explained that a massive underutilized resource is just women in general in society.
“The more we highlight these issues, the more awareness that can be spread,” Dr. McGregor said. “Then, women everywhere can just help each other like the domino effect of making sure that their care is deliberate, not by accident. I feel as though the more we have these conversations in our social spheres, the more the change can happen.”
On the note of the femtech industry’s contribution to promoting women’s rights, the emergency medicine expert added that all aspects of the industry can make a huge contribution to just human rights improvement for women in general. Since women need to understand that things are not equal or fair and that there is still work to be done so that women have equal rights to education, health care, opportunities, and pay, she revealed that increased awareness and education that can bridge different generations of women will be helpful overall in improving women’s access to health care that is designed for their bodies.
Dr. McGregor concluded the interview unveiling her immediate and ultimate future plans. For now, she would like to work on educating the educators and continuing to add to the science. In the long run, Dr. McGregor would like to see the youth carrying on this work. Dr. McGregor is counting on many younger women to understand the historical nature of how we, as a whole, got here so that we can end a lot of the unconscious bias that is built into our society as a whole.
“I will be an advocate for this for my entire life, but I want it to be something that will be self-perpetuating,” Dr. McGregor said. “There are so many things we need to redo, relook at, and build for the future. I would encourage both men and women to implement an evidence-based view in discovering this. That is why I am happy to talk with Ewha Voice and to help create awareness that needs to be done.”