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Mind the gap: The true extent of neglect in women’s health research

March 15, 2024
Business Affairs Women's Health

Bringing balance to clinical research
Although funding allocation is clearly of great importance, it is not the only factor in the neglect of women’s health research. As Dr Janine Austin Clayton, Director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), has pointed out, “We literally know less about every aspect of female biology compared to male biology.” And one reason for this is the deliberate, decades-long exclusion of women from clinical trials.

The justifications for this were multiple: medical and liability concerns about the potential for drug-induced damage to fetuses; the widespread view that including women in clinical trials would introduce additional variables in the form of fluctuating hormones; and the somewhat contradictory yet equally widespread belief among (predominantly male) researchers that women would respond to treatments in the same way as the men on whom they were tested.

The rise of femtech
In recent years, policy changes mandating the inclusion of women in health research and growing awareness of the market potential have led to an explosion of activity in women’s health. And nowhere is this clearer than the rise of ‘femtech’.

First coined in 2016 to refer to technology for women’s reproductive and sexual health, the term was redefined by Femtech Focus in 2020 as “solutions to conditions that solely disproportionately or differently affect females, women and girls” – thus widening its scope to cover a number of conditions that present differently in men and women. The unprecedented demand for digital reproductive and gynecological health solutions during the COVID-19 pandemic provided the market with a strong impetus for growth. Global VC investment crossed the $1 billion mark for the first time in 2021.

Some argue that the femtech label may be doing women’s health companies a disservice, preventing them from being seen as equals to their peers in the wider healthtech industry and reducing them to a ‘niche’ market. For the moment, however, the term femtech provides visibility for this underserviced segment and allows its growth to be measured.

Maintaining accountability, increasing momentum
As activity increases and new areas of women’s health emerge as markets of interest, it is essential that ethical concerns, including medical accuracy, data privacy and the potential incongruity between companies’ feminist empowerment discourse and their financial motives, continue to be addressed.

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