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Opinion

Why we need a real-life GP Barbie to help us fix the health patriarchy

By Dr Bryony Henderson, GP and associate medical director at Livi UK

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The box office smash hit Barbie has provided light relief this summer with the iconic 1950s toy reigniting the debate around female representation within “the patriarchy”.

As a doctor and a mother of two girls I smiled at the end when Barbie finishes the film arriving to see her gynaecologist – a symbol of her arrival into the real world, with real female human anatomy.

The film certainly has  given me time to reflect on the topic of female health, how far we have come since the 1950s when Barbie hit the shelves – but how much further we need to go.

The truth is, despite modern medicine coming on leaps and bounds since the first tampon was introduced to the market in the 1930s, we still have a prevailing gender health gap.

Barbie is right, there is a patriarchy – and it’s even starker when you look at it within a health lens. Female health is still significantly underinvested in and there are more than half a million women waiting to see a gynaecologist in the UK.

Would GP Barbie stand for this? If the film’s raucous, feminist uprising is anything to go by, definitely not. But what would Barbie do? Can we really jump on the pink plastic Barbie bandwagon to help solve the female health gap?

To be honest, the pink thing is part of the problem. In “our world” women’s health is too often narrowly viewed as “bikini medicine” – in other words, the mistaken belief that women’s health only concerns the parts of the body covered by a bikini, and one that’s probably pink and covered in sequins to make it “female friendly”.

This pink and sparkly bikini has sparked a standalone “femtech” sector – and whilst I’m pleased women’s health is getting some of the investment it needs and there are new products being made available, it’s not helping solve the most urgent problems we have.

A good place to focus our investment is on health literacy – and educating and empowering the population to better understand our bodies, and better describe symptoms, pain and anatomy.

Lots of my patients don’t really understand the menstrual cycle, which is vital information for knowing about fertility, for managing painful periods, or diagnosing debilitating conditions like endometriosis.

With most women experiencing regular periods for over 30 years, better health literacy would empower thousands of patients, meaning a higher quality, more personalised healthcare experience – and better long-term health outcomes.

Moving away from the hype

When I think about what element of my work I’m most excited about, it’s digital technology’ s ability to create trusted and safe global communities for women to access reliable and medically approved information, that will help them to understand and talk about intimate health issues.

In turn, if we better understand the female body, we can better direct research and funding to the right places, and ensure women are given the best and easily-accessed information to manage their own health.

But we cannot create this new world ourselves. For me the real innovation for female health will only start by improving how we talk about our bodies and empowering us all to ask the right questions and make better, informed decisions about what female health is.

Access and information mean nothing unless we can keep health literacy on the agenda. We need to ensure that policy can boost digital literacy, that systems embed digital health at the core and that we address the need for better and broader definitions of female health across innovation and investment. (Something that I’m sure GP Barbie would understand, challenge and champion).

Let’s use the Barbie hype to create some real impetus for change – away from the pink world of femtech and into a more equitable and well-informed world of women’s health that goes beyond the bikini.

Dr Bryony Henderson is a GP and associate medical director at Livi UK.

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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