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Women’s health is not a lapel pin of a pink ribbon. It’s not an app on your phone or the month of October. It’s not restricted to one age, demographic or geography. It’s not a label or a category. It’s not a singular condition. My mother is in remission from breast cancer, and women’s health is not that either.
Enter the paradox of women’s health: As a society, we uniformly agree it’s important, but many of us cannot define it.
Not a day goes by when I do not hear about a new digital health application or technological device focused on women and their healthcare, but many are forgotten by the next week. Business leaders and entrepreneurs, who are dedicating countless hours to disrupt the healthcare model, work tirelessly to make healthcare more efficient, equitable and affordable. Their efforts should be applauded. But when it comes to women’s health, I believe an important question should be asked: Are they clear on what they are trying to innovate?
I have had the privilege to run an obstetrics and gynecological device business for the past decade, and even I struggle at times with how to define women’s health. However, I have learned from some trial and error. The main lesson I have learned is that women’s health encompasses the entire life cycle of women, from adolescents to the elderly, who are all in need of quality healthcare related to reproductive and maternal health, sexual violence and sexually transmitted diseases, to name a few. It is a comprehensive subject of study that requires a specialized focus to treat disease states that are very nuanced to female biology. Failing to recognize this can limit innovation and make healthcare inequitable for women.
For instance, it took decades of antiquated treatment and underserved care before advancements were made in breast cancer. Susan G. Komen did eventually hand out that first iconic pink ribbon for breast cancer. And now, thanks to improved treatments and early detection and awareness, breast cancer mortality rates have declined significantly. Progress has been made over the years through a greater focus on the disease, which is important, but there are other disease states affecting women worldwide that still require focus.
Women around the world suffer from a broad set of conditions that are centric to the female genotype, and much research and discovery is needed to understand how to better treat these conditions. For example, a variety of gynecological cancers collectively encompass over 17% of female cancer patients.
My company works directly with nongovernmental organizations to provide our services to women in need in emerging countries in Africa, and some of these services include cervical cancer screenings. I believe gynecological cancers do not receive the awareness they deserve, and I’ve observed firsthand that this is most prevalent in underserved international markets. That’s not considering the number of women who do not get adequately screened or lack access to technological advancements that are now prevalent in the U.S.
Defining women’s health appropriately is a critical precursor for business leaders and entrepreneurs to be able to prioritize it appropriately. Not long ago, cervical cancer treatment followed antiquated approaches of relying upon product extensions of redundant therapies. Now, I’ve seen the treatment of cervical cancer is driven by innovation that makes therapies more portable and minimally invasive. Medical devices that once were stand-alone units have evolved with high-definition digital optics, wireless and battery-operated technology, LED technology, and integrated applications for extensive data collection and analytics. I believe the future of cervical cancer may incorporate similar breakthrough technology such as AI with screening, diagnosis and treatment.
However, innovation requires focus, which is where business leaders and entrepreneurs disrupting the healthcare ecosystem are so critical. Our leadership can guide more focus, and in turn funding, that drives further progress in women’s health. In order for this to happen, there still needs to be greater recognition that health issues that impact women span categories of disease states, demographics and even geographies. My advice to business leaders is:
• First, remember that women’s health is not one single issue or demographic.
• Second, focus on the problem that you are trying to solve. Is it inefficiency, access or high costs? Focus on that specific issue, and do not try to be a solution for all.
• Third, when it’s time to focus on a solution, technology is typically the answer, but remember not to over-innovate (there is such a thing). Importantly, innovation needs to be validated either through data or user engagement — if you reach too far, you risk missing the mark. Achievable milestones that drive value are important when moving toward innovation, as well as for the funding that supports it.
• Fourth, bring others onto the journey by partnering with key thought leaders. Learn from the mistakes of generations past, and make sure you have women’s perspectives among your advisors.
• Fifth, but not final, funding is important to drive innovation. There is a strong social message that comes to women’s health that differentiates the field from others. Unapologetically embrace this differentiation.
So what is “women’s health?” Harriet Beecher Stowe, the renowned 19th century writer and abolitionist who became one of the most influential women in U.S. history, may have captured it best with a quote famously attributed to her: “A woman’s health is her capital.” This capital is shared with so many others as a mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend — and we need to continue to invest in this capital so that innovation in women’s health can thrive.
May 28, 2019 at 08:01AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs