Women represent as much as $20 trillion globally in annual consumer spending, yet many of their health needs remain unaddressed by the healthcare market. One large need that has been almost entirely ignored is feminine digital health. To date, women’s health accounts for just 4 percent of the R&D funding for healthcare products and services.
Take cervical health, for instance. For decades, there were almost no new innovations for the treatment of cervical cancer — despite the fact that it is the second most common cancer among women worldwide. Cervical cancer is highly curable when diagnosed at an early stage, yet thousands of women in the U.S. are still dying every year due to lack of proper screening.
The good news is that we’re finally seeing an acceleration of startups and investment focused on women’s health. Driving the trend is a growing awareness that feminine health technologies represent a huge opportunity. FemTech startups have raised more than $1.1 billion in total funding over the last several years, according to CB Insights. And Frost & Sullivan forecasts that the FemTech market will reach $50 billion by 2025.
Women’s health startups cover everything from fertility tracking apps and smart breast pumps to medical devices that give women instant feedback about their health status. This is all part of a growing effort to bring equal and objective technology to women’s health, and to introduce transformational innovations that improve their lives.
The monitoring of cervical cancer is a perfect example of this. The cancer is often preventable, but it is regularly misdiagnosed. The intrinsic subjectivity of the cervical exam limits the diagnostic accuracy to about 60 percent. This misdiagnosis puts patients at greater risk and costs the healthcare industry billions of dollars a year.
Since the introduction of the Pap test in 1943, the death rate in the United States from cervical cancer has decreased by 70 percent. However, false-negative reports — laboratory reports which fail to identify abnormal cells — are still widespread, and occur in 16 percent to 40 percent of all Pap tests.
The disease is especially deadly in developing countries, where testing is more infrequent and early detection and treatment are more difficult. It’s also important to mention that, due to new health standards, cervical exams are typically performed only every 3-5 years and not on an annual basis, which could make it even more difficult to identify abnormalities.
The bottom line is that cervical cancer screening, if properly conducted, could be even more effective. What if we could accurately detect cervical dysplasia and, therefore, prevent most cervical cancer?
One startup aiming to promote this issue is Illumigyn, founded by serial entrepreneur and inventor Ran Poliakine. The company’s breakthrough product, the Gynescope, is a compact imaging device that uses machine vision technology to allow gynecologists and GPs to perform cervical screening tests in a way that simply was not possible before.
Illumigyn’s Gynescope visualizes signs of early-stage cervical cancer using different illumination and light wavelengths. This helps the doctor detect abnormalities in the tissue before they evolve into cancer or become invasive. For example, cervical cancer could be in its very early stages and invisible to the naked eye, but visible with the right illumination and high-resolution imaging of the tissue. Early detection is vitally important when it comes to cervical cancer, because many of the treatments associated with later detection can risk the patient’s fertility and quality of life.
The device also produces digital images that can be saved, archived, retrieved, shared, followed and compared. That means if a woman wants a second opinion from a different specialist, she doesn’t have to be tested again, she only needs to show the specialist the digital image, thus shortening wait times for a second opinion. This is critical because there is shortage of experts in the field. And, by improving image accuracy and access, the Gynescope can provide the real-time answers doctors need to speed up accurate diagnosis of cervical cancer.
This approach is resonating in the market. Having digital recordings of their cervical health makes women more confident about the care they receive. What’s more, the possibility of shortening wait time for screening results can help reduce their anxiety.
Overall, expect to see even more technology solutions and products aimed at addressing the unique needs of women. Forward-looking companies now have a greenfield opportunity to tap into this exciting market — and truly change the game for women’s health. That’s good news for all women, who are increasingly empowered to take control of their health and live happier lives.