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Opinion

Why the growth of gut-tech could transform female health outcomes

By Dr Caitlin Hall, chief dietitian and head of clinical research at myota

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Dr Caitlin Hall

The human digestive system is a complex, fascinating network of organs and tissues.

Home to trillions of bacteria, our gut plays a crucial role in an array of bodily functions beyond the conversion of food to energy – from the balancing of hormones to the prevention of disease.

Recent breakthroughs in our understanding of the function of the human gut have fuelled a significant increase in innovation in the gut health space.

As a result, the market is seeing a rise in ‘gut-tech’: technologies designed to aid or improve the important functions of our gut in order to improve health outcomes.

This is a trend that females can celebrate. At long last, attention commensurate with its significance is being focused on the gut, and this is having a transformative outcome on our understanding of the female experience of health and disease, and on the availability of therapeutics and treatments designed for the female body.

Mapping the growth of gut-tech

The majority of innovation in the gut-tech space is focused on the gut microbiome, a term referring to the trillions of bacteria that exist throughout the gastrointestinal tract, but especially in our large intestine.

Until the turn of the century, very little was known about the function or composition of the microbiome. This all changed following rapid advances in the sophistication and capability of sequencing technologies.

​​In 2007, Human Microbiome Project researchers at the United States National Institutes of Health started exploring the importance of microbiota for health, and in 2020, the European Bioinformatics Institute pooled more than 200,000 gut genomes to create a genetic database of human gut microbes.

By 2021, the extent of information and the consequences of this information for scientific research inspired James Kinross, a microbiome scientist and surgeon at Imperial College London, to name the gut microbiome as “the most important scientific discovery for human healthcare in recent decades.”

Today, we understand in more detail than ever before the mechanisms by which gut bacteria ferment dietary fibre to produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs).

These molecules are involved in the immune response, in digestion, in hormone regulation, and in the reversal and prevention of chronic diseases including cancer, depression, IBD and diabetes. It’s not a stretch to claim that nearly every marker of human health – including mental health – is in some way modulated by the activity of the gut.

It follows that technologies designed to aid or alter this activity will have significant health outcomes, explaining the huge growth in the valuation of the human microbiome market.

Currently estimated at a value of US$269 million, this market – of which therapeutics accounts for the majority share – has a compound annual growth rate of 31.1 per cent.

Should gut-tech be considered a subset of femtech?

For a start, we know that many of the chronic health conditions related to the activity of the gut microbiome are conditions that statistically affect women more than men.

These conditions include inflammatory and autoimmune conditions such as arthritis, IBD and IBS, as well as digestive disorders that cause nausea and/or bloating.

Women are also more likely to be affected by depression and other mental health conditions that are thought to be triggered by an imbalance of hormones in the brain – hormones that are directly linked to SCFA production by the microbiome.

Also on account of the hormone/microbiome relationship, researchers now believe that therapeutics targeting the microbiome represent a new frontier in treating menopause symptoms and managing peri- and postmenopausal health.

It follows that we can consider gut-tech to be a cornerstone of fem-tech, as these technologies translate our improved understanding of the gut and the microbiome into improved health outcomes for women.

Further progress in the development of gut-tech for the benefit of female health outcomes will require continued efforts to better understand the function and role of the microbiome, as well as concerted work to improve the geographic and ethnic diversity of microbiome samples used for research purposes.

 

Dr Caitlin Hall is the chief dietitian and head of clinical research at myota, a gut health start-up based in London that uses machine learning, microbiome sequencing and analytical chemistry to explore and promote the therapeutic benefits of a healthy gut microbiome.

Opinion

‘We are not allowed to talk about our bodies’: why we need to address social media censorship

By Clio Wood, women’s health advocate and founder of &Breathe

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Social media censorship is just another example of women’s issues being sidelined and women being made, yet again, to feel small.

The gender data gap is huge and, if you’ve ever read the great Caroline Criado Perez’s book, Invisible Women, you’ll know what I mean. It touches every day of a female life.

That impact includes social media too. Because while the social media platforms are notoriously secretive about their internal workings, it’s a pretty safe bet that social media algorithms, like most of the rest of life, are built on male data and trained on male behaviours.

This means that as long as women have different behaviours and priorities of what they want to see on these platforms, we’re going to find it a struggle.

Meta and Tiktok are silencing women’s health and sexual wellbeing content. Censorship harms women’s health: it increases women’s pain, and disempowers women, which in turn means the gender health gap cannot close. What annoys you when you’re on your phone scrolling has long-lasting impact for us and our children.

I’ve experienced this censorship first hand on Instagram, with my reach being restricted for simply posting a body confidence reel of me dancing in a bikini.

That in itself – one example of many – is infuriating, but what’s especially galling is that everyday men’s health topics are left uncensored, and hyper sexualised women’s bodies, unsolicited “dick pics” and fake accounts using nearly naked female profile pictures are making their way into social media feeds and inboxes unchecked. The hypocrisy of the situation is clear.

All the while charities are being forced to use male nipples instead of female ones, and female-led period brands are losing hundreds of thousands of pounds when their ad accounts get deleted.

Creators, charities, medical practitioners and brands are being censored constantly through algorithms picking up words like sex, vagina, vulva, or period. Which are all normal human functions or body parts and integral to these creators’ missions. You can’t be a period care brand without talking about periods.

CensHERship aims to alter the trajectory of the current algorithms and end the routine censorship of women’s health content online

Creators end up using written symbols and numbers to disguise these words and bleep them out in speech to try to get around this censorship.

It’s examples like this that finally led me – after many years of finding this situation ridiculous – to do something about it.

Together with Anna O’Sullivan, we’ve created CensHERship, a campaign which aims to alter the trajectory of the current algorithms and hopefully restore some balance to what is allowed on social media. Our ultimate aim is to bring the platforms to the table for discussion by this time next year.

We launched a survey in late January 2024 to try to collect as much information as we can about the incidences of muting and censorship that female creators are experiencing, whether they are educators, charities, brands or medical professionals. The results emphasised that this is a widespread issue taking in all of women’s health and sexual wellbeing.

In tandem we hosted an intimate roundtable to launch the CensHERship campaign and found, to our astonishment, that the problem goes much deeper than social media. Women’s health and sexual wellbeing brands are being refused bank accounts, insurance and being kicked off payment platforms without warning.

Social media censorship is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s just one more example of women’s issues being sidelined and women being made, yet again, to feel small.

We’re not being allowed the freedom to talk about our own bodies and health, because speaking up goes against the male-gaze archetype of the female role and body. Let’s end CensHERship once and for all.

Clio Wood is a women’s health advocate, journalist, author and Founder of &Breathe.

Anna O’Sullivan is a communications and marketing professional and writes FutureFemHealth 

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Opinion

Revolutionising women’s health: the rise of femtech innovations

By Jo Barnard, founder and creative director of Morrama

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In the fast-evolving landscape of female technology, 2024 is poised to mark a pivotal year in growth and innovation.

Investors are increasingly recognising the vast potential of a typically overlooked audience, which encompasses 45+ year-old women with disposable income and actively seeking solutions.

As the femtech sector continues to gain momentum, we can anticipate the introduction of innovative features, products and services – such as intelligent menstrual cups, connected pads addressing menstrual cramps and wearables with hot flush detection capabilities, all with an growing focus on the unique needs of the individual.

Removing the guesswork through data

Whilst we mustn’t devalue leading medical advice on female health – including period complications, fertility, and menopause – they can feel like one-size-fits-all treatments that are only offered in the more severe cases. In reality, women’s health is a very personal and nuanced journey. The next few months promise the advent of smarter versions of pre-existing products, in an effort to help women understand their bodies better.

Take Emm, for instance. The company created a menstrual cup embedded with sensors to track menstrual flow, providing users with valuable insights into their menstrual health.

Similarly, wearables such as FemSense utilise advanced algorithms to predict ovulation with 99.7 per cent accuracy. These cutting-edge digital and physical devices help unlock new insights into the complexities of the female body, paving the way for more informed decision-making and improved health outcomes.

Addressing gaps in conventional treatments

While the femtech sector continues to push the boundaries of innovation, it also seeks to address long-standing gaps in the provision of medical solutions for various female health issues.

Conventional treatments, such as contraceptive pills for managing period pains, IVF for fertility problems or hormone replacements for menopause often fall short in meeting the diverse needs of women.

Against this backdrop, femtech brands are pioneering a more specialised and inclusive approach – as highlighted by brands like Tina, which I explore into more detail below – tailoring products to specific demographics, including people of colour, individuals with physical constraints and those with distinct religious beliefs.

Prioritising design, technology, and user experience

Central to the femtech revolution is a strategic focus on design and technology, aimed at enhancing the quality of life for women across the globe. Leading brands such as Emm, Embr and Tina are at the forefront of this movement, developing solutions that not only empower women but also drive positive societal change.

Tina’s aim, for example, is to create inclusive design for all bodies and abilities, engineered with anatomy in mind. Their tampon applicator takes into account correct angles and depth, and prides itself in being “first-period friendly”, reducing the stigma surrounding women’s health for the next generations.

These brands can only achieve this by opening up the conversation and incorporating feedback from diverse communities in order to deliver products that resonate with women from all walks of life.

In addition, this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January offered valuable insights into the evolving landscape of femtech, where innovation is not solely defined by radical disruptions but by incremental improvements to existing products and services.

Highlights from the show included: Movano Health’s Evie Ring, a smart health ring utilising AI to analyse women’s menstrual and sleep data; and Vivoo’s new at-home smart UTI test, showing that a dipstick test can be beautiful and utilising the capabilities of smartphones to give more accurate readings.

With femtech brands historically focusing on function over aesthetics, it’s positive to see companies considering smarter delivery mechanisms, more thoughtful design and more personalised educational pathways. The result is that women feel more empowered and valued as individuals.

Importance of research and evidence-based practice

However, as femtech continues to grow and develop, it’s also crucial not to lose sight of the importance of scientific rigour and evidence-based practice. For every truly science-based solution there will inevitably be a flood of lower quality copycats and brands promoting products that serve only as a placebo.

Building trust in femtech solutions requires a commitment to transparency, accountability and continuous improvement. Only by investing in rigorous scientific enquiry can we ensure that femtech products and services meet the highest standards of safety, efficacy and reliability.

A bright future for femtech

I’m excited for the future of femtech. As we look ahead to the next few months and beyond, let us embrace innovation, inclusivity, open-mindedness and evidence-based practice as our guiding principles.

More than ever, the industry has the potential to usher in a new era of personalised, proactive and women-centred healthcare, making a meaningful impact on women’s quality of life as well as the broader population as well.

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Opinion

How the UK’s ‘pharmacy first’ policy will change women’s healthcare

By Katherine Bridges, head of brand and clinical lead at the pharmacy app Charac

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On the January 31, the UK government will roll out its long-awaited “pharmacy first” policy, a measure designed to cut the size of the NHS backlog – which currently stands at around 7.6 million patients.

With “pharmacy first”, patients suffering from various lesser ailments – such as sore throats and shingles – will be directed to their local pharmacy as their first port of call.

Pharmacies will also be able to supply certain prescription medicines. It is hoped that this will ease pressure on Britain’s seriously overstretched hospitals and GPs.

The policy is set to transform healthcare provision in the UK, which is important for women’s health across the country. If the policy can be carried through successfully, women’s access to NHS will improve in a number of ways. The success of “pharmacy first” will, however, rely on a big technological upgrade to Britain’s 11,500 high-street pharmacies.

Improving women’s access

This shift of several key medical functions to Britain’s pharmacies will give women easier access to important medicines and treatments. For instance, under “pharmacy first” patients will be able to pick up prescription medicine for urinary tract infections (UTIs) from pharmacies; previously this required a GP appointment beforehand.

This change will be especially valuable for women, given that this ailment disproportionately affects women, with roughly 50 per cent experiencing one over the course of their lives.

Crucially, under the new policy, women will also be able to purchase contraceptive pills at their pharmacies without seeing a GP. It is vitally important, but easily prescribed and administered medications such as this that will see “pharmacy first” freeing up countless of hours of GP and hospital time.

Further, the reduction of pressure on GPs and hospitals will improve women’s access to critical medical procedures and treatments. For instance, the policy will put a dent in the NHS’s mastectomies backlog, which is currently putting thousands of women in the UK at a greater risk of breast cancer.

Femtech critical to making a success of “pharmacy first”

Of course, “pharmacy first” represents a very large administrative and operational task for Britain’s high-street pharmacies.

It is uncertain whether these pharmacies, in their current state, will be able to meet the challenge. Community pharmacies are often small and family run. As such, they find it difficult to afford key labour-saving technologies that cut costs and free up time.

These pharmacies’ internal systems are often ramshackle and antiquated. Many still run on paper, making everything from prescriptions to payroll arduous and time-consuming.

It is clear that these pharmacies will need to undergo a big technological upgrade as the policy is rolled out this year. Femtech will play a key role in this effort.

Femtech technologies could help pharmacists manage the transition to a greater scope of provision. For instance, femtech companies, such as Vivoo’s at-home women’s UTI test, could help pharmacists manage the task of treating this common women’s ailment.

Another would be the online self-assessment system Tuune, which matches women to the contraceptive treatment appropriate to their particular hormonal profile.

Innovations like these will be an essential part of women’s healthcare in the age of “pharmacy first”, driving efficiencies in high-street pharmacies and expanding women’s access to treatment.

The future of health tech will empower women

Other health technologies will help amplify the impact of femtech. Apps, such as Charac, offer a dashboard for both pharmacists and their customers, allowing customers to book pharmacy appointments and get their prescriptions delivered to their door.

These kinds of accessible, integrated health tech systems that will prove so valuable in the age of “pharmacy first” will also help improve patient outcomes for women. One of the primary hindrances to better healthcare for women is a lack of information and access.

Research by the Department of Health and Social Care revealed that around 85 per cent of British women did not feel comfortable talking to their GPs about their physical health, and a similar percentage can remember an occasion where they did not feel listened to by medical professionals.

Similarly, knowledge of women’s health issues is often low: less than one in five UK women felt that they had enough information on menstrual health, and less than one in 10 felt they knew enough about gynaecological conditions.

What’s clear is that a lack of information and access is leading to worse health outcomes for women than men, but health tech can make a valuable contribution – streamlining appointments and prescriptions, raising public awareness of health conditions and the treatment services that women can access and making patient outcomes and healthcare more equal.

As “pharmacy first” becomes policy, we have a chance to use the latest developments in femtech and health tech to both make a dent in the NHS backlog, and to put women’s healthcare on a surer foundation.

Katherine Bridges is head of brand and clinical lead at the pharmacy app Charac.

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