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The rise in sexual health apps

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A rising trend in the wellness sphere is sexual health apps, and there are a variety of technologies aimed specifically at women. Femtech World reports on the latest advances putting pleasure back into women’s hands…

Femtech has made great strides in addressing many female health inequalities, putting women in the driving seat when it comes to matters surrounding menstruation, menopause or fertility.

And now, the focus has shifted onto something a little more wide-ranging: namely, sexual health apps.

As many as 43 per cent of women report suffering from some form of sexual dysfunction in their lifetime.

This manifests itself in such issues as low libido, low confidence, inability to reach orgasm or distressing sexual thoughts, which may in turn have a serious impact on relationships.

Traditional therapy can be expensive and, for some people, talking about such intimate matters with a stranger can be uncomfortable and daunting.

Enter the sexual health app: cost-effective, anonymous and easy to access, it has the potential to revolutionise women’s sexual health.

Blueheart

Blueheart was the brainchild of Sachin Raoul who, following a break-up, found himself in need of sexual therapy he could ill afford financially.

So he, in partnership with world-renowned therapist Dr Katherine Hertlein, set about creating an app that would offer tailored, professional advice in cases of sexual dysfunction.

The app features audio and written sessions, taken from materials designed by Dr Hertlein, focusing around thought, encompassing issues such as sexual fears and anxieties, body, which is centred around building a positive relationships with the body, and connection, which deals with how to communicate.

The app is free, after the team behind it noticed a rise in demand for sexual support over lockdown, and one of the first programmes it offered was designed for women experiencing low libido.

Sachin told Marie Claire magazine: “Today, much of the advice around sex is not necessarily the right advice. Often, support available online is overly focused on ‘wellness’, when a huge range of sexual issues can only be addressed via scientifically-backed support and therapy.

“This is where Blueheart comes in. We’re democratising access to confidential support designed by the world’s leading experts to help people regain control of their sex lives.”

Lover

Another science-backed sexual health app is Lover, created by clinical psychologist and behavioural medicine expert Dr Britney Blair and her team.

Like Blueheart, it is described as a science-based app for addressing sexual concerns, increasing pleasure and improving skills in the bedroom through a series of practical exercises, such as orgasm exercises, mindfulness and games, delivered via a mix of audio and video content.

Dr Blair said: “Therapy can change people’s lives. Sexual health is very important and I see relationships changed and lives changed through the work I do [face to face]. Now we have tech as a digital intervention.

“The grand plan is we help people to optimise their sexual life and make sure sex stays alive. Sexual disconnection is a reason couples get divorced.”

Lover has become the first sex therapy app to join the FDA’s Safer Technologies Program, allowing doctors to prescribe it as a safe, side-effect-free treatment for sexual dysfunction.

Ferly

Ferly bills itself as a sexual mindfulness app, and aims to ‘smash the taboo, the stigma and the shame around women’s health and female pleasure’.

However, in the early days, founders Billie Quinlan and Anna Hushlak found that male investors were reluctant to help them get the idea off the ground, claiming that women were a “niche market” and even recommending that the pair focus on porn to get ahead.

Despite the early stumbling blocks, Ferly was launched in 2019 to offer audio erotic stories, guided practices and personalised programmes, all of which help women explore pleasure in a mindful way and overcome any sexual issues.

The app takes users through a variety of different programmes, which address issues such as lack of body confidence, low libido and difficulty or inability to orgasm.

Billie said: “We use a mindful cognitive behavioural therapy approach. Many sexual issues are because there’s a physiological barrier. You can’t take a pharmaceutical approach… you have to take a holistic approach.”

And despite those investors’ early misgivings, it has since raised more than £1.5m in funding and attracted users from more than 50 countries.

Apps like the above prove, the industry has so much more potential – and women are more than ready to tap into it.

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Femtech must acknowledge the risk of perpetuating medical racism, say campaigners

Campaigners have warned that health tools could overlook women from marginalised communities

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Femtech must acknowledge the risk of perpetuating medical racism, campaigners have warned, amid concern that the sector could perpetuate long-standing racial inequities.

Femtech is already showing promise to help clinicians make better diagnoses and support women with managing their health.

But as excitement grows, campaigners have warned that these powerful tools could overlook women from marginalised communities and perpetuate long-standing racial inequities in how care is delivered.

“Any technology meant to help people track and improve women’s health outcomes must be inclusive and anti-racist,” Dr Regina Davis Moss, president and CEO of In Our Own Voice, told Femtech World.

“Black women have historically been disregarded, overlooked and undermined by the medical technology industry. It is past time for our interests and needs to be prioritised in clinical trials and other forms of scientific research.

“Femtech companies must ensure that their research and clinical trials equitably involve communities of all backgrounds.”

Around 2,000 femtech companies and apps have sprung up in the last decade to address women’s needs, including tracking apps, fertility solutions and menopause platforms.

These new tools are often built using machine learning, a subset of AI where algorithms are trained to find patterns in large data sets like billing information and test results.

The data these algorithms are built on, however, often reflect inequities and bias that have long plagued the healthcare system. Research shows clinicians often provide different care to white patients and patients of colour. Those differences in how patients are treated get immortalised in data, which are then used to train algorithms.

“When our research omits subsets of the population, the accuracy and potential benefits of that research do not extend to those who disproportionately bear the burden of disease,” said Dr Monique Gary, breast surgical oncologist at Grand View Health.

“We are seeing already how AI can harm marginalised communities, where biased algorithms require racial or ethnic minorities to be considerably ‘more ill’ than their white counterparts to receive the same diagnosis, treatment, or resource. This is perilous and avoidable.”

To create responsible and equitable technologies that include BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of colour) women, Gary said companies could start identifying and recruiting experts of colour, via pipeline programmes and incubators.

“We need to start listening to, believing and supporting the voices of Black women,” she said.

“In 2024, women of all ages and races, ethnicities and orientations are telling us out loud what they need to actualise a better version of healthcare which incorporates significant tech utilisation. It’s now up to us to listen.”

Ashley Jones, creative director of Tones of Melanin, said femtech must acknowledge the risk of perpetuating medical racism and prioritise inclusivity.

“Companies in femtech should actively seek out diverse perspectives and experiences, particularly from BIPOC women, in both their datasets and research.

“This includes collaborating with BIPOC brands, stakeholders and organisations to ensure that their products address the specific needs and concerns of BIPOC women.”

Tech developers, Jones said, could address racism by implementing robust diversity and inclusion initiatives within their teams, actively seeking out BIPOC voices in decision-making processes and educating themselves on the unique experiences of BIPOC women in healthcare.

Sylvia Kang, co-founder and CEO at Mira, pointed out that femtech companies should also focus on affordability, as cost can be preventing women from marginalised communities from accessing healthcare.

“Most of the people that can access femtech tools for their health are white mid-to-high income women,” Kang explained.

“Unfortunately, there are some communities, including BIPOC that do not have enough resources to purchase these tools.

“I believe it’s our responsibility to take action and democratise our data and tools in specific ways.”

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US start-up raises US$4.3m to address maternal mental health

The funding is hoped to help FamilyWell scale throughout New England and expand nationally

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The US mental health start-up FamilyWell Health has raised US$4.3m in seed financing to support women facing maternal mental health challenges.

FamilyWell Health is a behavioural health company that integrates specialised mental health services, such as coaching, therapy and psychiatry, into OB/GYN practices.

The platform aims to provide pregnant and postpartum patients with specialised support for depression, anxiety and other perinatal mental health concerns.

New mothers face dire maternal mental health challenges in the US, with a staggering one in seven women suffering from postpartum depression.

Individuals who seek treatment typically wait for months to be seen by a mental health provider and instead turn to their obstetricians, who are often hesitant to screen for mental health conditions knowing there is a shortage of therapists and psychiatrists.

“I had difficulty finding support when I experienced postpartum depression and have cared for countless new moms struggling to access mental health care during one of the most vulnerable periods of their lives,” said Dr Jessica Gaulton, founder and CEO of FamilyWell.

“My experience, both as a survivor and as a practicing neonatologist, inspired me to start FamilyWell to provide equitable, affordable, and accessible mental healthcare for new mothers.”

By partnering with OB providers, Gaulton said FamilyWell would increase access to mental health support for pregnant and postpartum individuals where and when they need it.

The funding, led by .406 Ventures with participation from GreyMatter Capital and Mother Ventures, is hoped to help the start-up scale throughout New England and expand nationally.

Payal Divakaran, partner at .406 Ventures, said: “Given our team’s deep experience backing innovative behavioural health and women’s health companies, we had been looking at this intersection for quite some time.

“FamilyWell offers an elegant solution that is a win-win for all stakeholders, including obstetric practices. Dr Gaulton and her team have built an incredible, mission-driven company poised to address a critical need in women’s mental health.”

Dr Melissa Sherman, medical director and obstetrician at Essex OB/GYN Associates, a FamilyWell customer, added: “When you’re pregnant or caring for a newborn, you can’t afford to wait months for help.

“With FamilyWell, patients get help within days and have ongoing support through one of the biggest transitions of their lives.”

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‘Women crave the quick fix of a silver bullet’: menopause experts have their say on talking therapies

Talking therapies could reduce symptoms that may not be otherwise relieved through HRT, specialists have argued

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The recent research showing talking therapies could help women through menopause is a “fantastic step forward” in the advocation of choice, experts have said, warning that HRT alone will not reduce all symptoms.

Talking therapies, such as mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy, have been found to effectively treat menopause symptoms, such as low mood and anxiety.

Researchers from University College London have shown that the practices, which focus on developing behavioural patterns, coping strategies and relaxation techniques, could have benefits beyond those of HRT, including improved sleep, memory and concentration.

The techniques, experts told Femtech World, could help dampen down women’s physiological system, reducing symptoms that may not be otherwise relieved through HRT.

“Our ability to regulate the stress hormone is hampered during menopause, meaning we sit further up the stress scale than we did before,” said Dr Bev Taylor, psychologist and menopause educator.

“Stress also makes many menopausal symptoms worse, either in frequency or severity. These techniques reduce symptoms by dampening down our physiological system and bringing us back down the stress scale.”

The beauty of them, Taylor said, is that they can be used by anyone.

“Whether you can or want to take HRT or whether you want to use them alongside treatments like HRT, you can. This research is a fantastic step forward in the advocation of choice.”

Catherine Harland, menopause educator, coach and founder member of MenoClarity, said talking therapies had received a lot of backlash since the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommended them in their updated guidelines.

“Whilst I understand how life-changing talking therapies can be, I fully appreciate why so many women crave the ‘quick fix of a silver bullet’ in the form of HRT as we have been taught this from a young age,” she said. “We have been taught to turn to pharmaceuticals for any symptoms we experience.”

Modern women, Harland said, live stressful, fast-paced lives, juggling a multitude of things and often feel too busy to fit talking therapies into the mix.

“Menopause is a highly sensitive time and it’s vital women begin to understand the importance of self-care which includes talking therapies and mindfulness.

“HRT alone will not reduce symptoms of stress, trauma and metabolic disease caused by living in a high cortisol state for long periods of time.”

Around 15 per cent of women aged 45 to 64 in England are currently prescribed HRT, which has increased rapidly in the last two years from around 11 per cent and continues to increase.

The main benefit of HRT, according to the NHS website, is that it can help relieve most menopause and perimenopause symptoms, including hot flushes, brain fog, joint pains, mood swings and vaginal dryness.

Draft NHS guidelines recommend offering cognitive behavioural therapy, alongside or instead of HRT.

Dr Shahzadi Harper, menopause specialist and founder of The Harper Clinic, said talking therapies could benefit women experiencing menopause symptoms and help them feel more in control. However, she said they should not be it at the forefront of the menopause conversation.

Dr Shahzadi Harper, menopause specialist and founder of The Harper Clinic

“Talking therapies do not address the inherent hormone deficiency that arises due to perimenopause and menopause and the long-term consequences of declining hormone levels,” Harper explained.

“I don’t think they should be at the forefront and definitely not instead of HRT. However, I do think they could be a useful tool, especially as the symptoms of menopause can be quite debilitating and affect mental health and mood.”

Dr Clare Spencer, menopause specialist, GP and co-founder of My Menopause Centre, said while HRT could help many women manage symptoms of the menopause, there would be some women who may continue to experience symptoms, such as poor sleep, low mood and anxiety, despite being on it.

“Women may face other difficulties at the time of the menopause that may be additional causes of stress which can also impact on experience of symptoms of the menopause.

Dr Clare Spencer, GP, menopause specialist and co-founder of My Menopause Centre

“In these cases, there is a place for talking therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness, to help break some of the vicious cycles that can then exist.

“There is also a role for talking therapies in helping women who have been advised not to take HRT or do not wish to.”

She said, however, that long NHS waiting lists could prevent women from getting the support they need.

“There is an issue with access to cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness-based therapies through the NHS which does need resolving to allow more women access timely support,” she added.

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