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Experts call for ‘robust’ data protection standards after damning report

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Experts have called for more “robust” cybersecurity measures after a damning report revealed that femtech apps are “coercing” users into entering sensitive information that could put them at risk.

New research has found that women’s health apps are exposing users to “unnecessary” privacy and safety risks through their poor data-handling practices

The study, conducted by researchers from King’s College London and University College London (UCL), analysed 20 of the most popular female health apps on the US and UK Google Play Store and found instances of covertly gathering sensitive user data, inconsistencies across privacy policies and privacy-related app features, as well as flawed data deletion mechanisms.

Now, in an effort to address these concerns, experts have called for improved data protection and governance standards.

Ron De Jesus, privacy compliance professional and field chief privacy officer of data privacy platform Transcend, said: “Many apps have incredible access to users’ sensitive health data and they often bury their data collection terms and conditions in a wall of legal text, causing users to gloss over them.

“The implications of this kind of sensitive data collection are enormous. If it falls into the wrong hands, it could threaten users’ physical safety, or lead to workplace discrimination.

“The solution isn’t to stop collecting this data entirely— not when some apps need user data for their intended function. But it is critical that users understand what data apps collect and how they use it,” he told Femtech World.

“It’s table stakes for apps to have robust data protection and governance standards in place. But they must also present transparent data collection policies at the point of download and should always offer users an easy opportunity to delete their data.”

Christophe Van de Weyer, CEO of identity solutions company Telesign, said the UK study, which found that only one app the researchers reviewed addressed the sensitivity of menstrual data with regard to law enforcement in their privacy policies, is a stark reminder of the “urgent” need for robust cybersecurity measures.

“In an era where ransomware gangs leverage advanced technologies like generative AI to exploit vulnerabilities, it is crucial for app developers to implement robust cybersecurity measures, and key personnel, including IT support staff, need to be regularly trained on the latest threats and organisational policies to protect against them,” he said.

Chaitra Vedullapalli, founder of Women in Cloud, said explicit consent with stronger data governance must be a priority.

“Users need to be fully informed about what data is collected for, how it will be used and sold, and who it will be shared with or sold to. This transparency allows users to make informed decisions about their financial and health data privacy,” Vedullapalli explained.

“Additionally, implementing robust data management governance, such as clear and consistent privacy policies and reliable data deletion mechanisms, is crucial.”

Mona Schroedel, specialist data protection lawyer at national law firm Freeths, noted: “In the UK, the rules and regulations specifically single out health data as a special category of personal information that requires particularly stringent protection.

“Companies should have appropriate safeguards in place to protect such sensitive information from being accessible by third parties and/or used in a way that is not compatible with what the users of the apps signed up to.”

Schroedel said the reasoning behind putting health data in a special category is that it can easily lead to discrimination.

“For example, if a female user is trying to get pregnant and feeds information into the app and her employers gain access, there is a risk that this could influence the employer’s decision to give a long-term project to that individual,” she explained.

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‘Groundbreaking’ endometriosis study identifies patient priorities

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A “groundbreaking” study into endometriosis has identified three areas for future research that can help improve the outcomes for women with the condition.

The study, commissioned by Endometriosis New Zealand, attracted 1,262 participants, including 1,024 people with confirmed endometriosis, making it the largest ever study involving endometriosis patients and supporters in New Zealand.

Study participants identified the management and treatment of endometriosis, the need for a better understanding of its cause and improvements to diagnostic capability as the three main priorities for further research.

While these findings provide a clear pathway for future work, Endometriosis New Zealand chief executive, Tanya Cooke, said endometriosis research had historically been underfunded.

“With an estimated 120,000 New Zealanders living with endometriosis, much more needs to be invested into finding solutions,” Cooke explained.

“The reality is the outcomes for many endometriosis patients are pretty poor, with diagnosis often taking many years and treatment patchy across the country.”

Estimates based on Australian data suggest that endometriosis is likely to be costing New Zealand somewhere in the range of $1.3-1.5bn annually through increased healthcare costs and lost workforce productivity.

Cooke said: “The good news is that our findings align closely with those in Australia and provide three clear priorities for future research – improved treatment options, causation and better diagnostic capability.

“What New Zealand now requires is proper funding for a future research programme that can investigate these priorities more closely and improve the outcomes for individuals living with endometriosis.”

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Virtual care platform secures US$46m to address US maternal health crisis

Pomelo Care will use the funding to scale its care model and improve maternal and infant outcomes

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Marta Bralic Kerns, founder and CEO of Pomelo Care

The US virtual maternity care platform Pomelo Care has secured US$46m in funding to address the US maternal health crisis.

One in 10 babies born in the US today start their life in a neonatal intensive care unit.

Healthcare access continues to worsen, with one in eight births occurring in US counties with limited-to-no access to maternal care. Due to significant gaps in postpartum care, about half of pregnancy-related deaths in the US occur after hospital discharge.

The evidence exists for how to identify people at highest risk for complications and which interventions are most effective, but existing data gaps and provider capacity challenges make it difficult to apply these interventions at scale.

Pomelo has developed a care model that aims to address these challenges by analysing claims and health record data to identify individual risk factors and providing virtual pregnancy, postpartum, and infant care to patients to reduce those risks.

“We’ve long known what works to reduce maternal and infant complications,” said Marta Bralic Kerns, founder and CEO of Pomelo Care.

“The questions have always been: can you identify the patients who are at highest risk, can you deeply engage them in care to drive uptake of the prevention strategies we know work, and can you do it in the highest risk populations with the most limited access to care?”

“This data demonstrates that we absolutely can. And with this additional funding, we’ll have the opportunity to scale our care model to more pregnant people across the country.”

The funding, led by existing investors First Round Capital and Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) Bio + Health, is hoped to help Pomelo accelerate its partnerships with payors across the US and increase access to “evidence-based” care.

Josh Kopelman, partner at First Round Capital and Pomelo board member, said: “It’s rare to come across an opportunity where the incentives between patient, provider and payor are all aligned.

“Marta and the Pomelo team have found an incredible opportunity to dramatically improve outcomes for the highest risk populations, while helping payors reduce their avoidable costs.”

Vineeta Agarwala, general partner at a16z Bio + Health and Pomelo board member, added: “Pomelo is one among a small set of health tech companies that have earned true scale.

“This scale is evident in our partnerships with major Medicaid and commercial plans covering over three million lives, which create the opportunity to collaborate with OB providers, labour and delivery wards, and NICUs nationwide, while serving hundreds of thousands of expecting mothers and newborns with high quality, technology-enabled care.”

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One in three UK fertility patients seek treatment abroad due to high costs

Expensive fertility treatments prompt UK patients to seek help abroad

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One in three fertility patients in the UK seek treatment abroad due to high costs, a new survey has shown.

Fertility Family has gathered insights from 429 UK participants who have experienced difficulties with infertility.

The Infertility Awareness Report found that the high cost of fertility treatment in the UK has driven over one in four people to spend over £10,000 on both treatments and investigative procedures.

The research showed around 35 per cent of people struggling with infertility have considered seeking fertility treatment abroad due to the prospect of lower costs.

Of those seeking fertility treatment in a foreign country, however, only 14 per cent believed that clinics abroad have a higher success rate.

Of those actively trying to conceive almost one in five have used their life savings in the pursuit of having a child, whilst 25 per cent have paid for their fertility treatments using a credit card.

Dr Gill Lockwood, consultant at Fertility Family, said: “While we tend to cast our gaze on women when it comes to infertility, case studies have shown that infertility can impact both women and men in similar ways. However, women have been observed to seek help more than men.

“Although the psychological struggles of infertility can be overwhelming, many patients ultimately reach some type of resolution. Some of the alternatives include becoming parents to a relative’s children, adopting children, or deciding to adopt a child-free lifestyle.

“Needless to say, this resolution is usually psychologically demanding, and patients may feel forever impacted by the experience of infertility.”

A combination of fertility struggles and accessible healthcare have impacted people across the UK significantly, with one in two admitting to feeling “ashamed” due to their difficulties trying to conceive.

A further 31 per cent reported feeling that other people think “less” of them due to their fertility struggles, showcasing the need for better mental health support.

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