Editor’s note: This article introduces a series spotlighting women whose medical businesses are turning profits by serving other women.
Marje Isabelle was inspired to start Fertile Matters, a London firm that uses hormones to track clients’ fertility and improve their chances of becoming pregnant, in part by an infuriating personal encounter.
She says that, during a visit to a male gynecologist, he told her, “if a woman comes in and says she has hot sweats or can’t sleep and is tired or has mood swings, he’ll put them on hormone replacement therapy.” Then he added: “‘If they don’t come back screaming, then it’s the right dose.’”
It’s an extreme example of a pervasive problem: the failure of many doctors and medical experts to consider — and sometimes even acknowledge — the fact that women’s bodies work differently than men’s. It exists on every level of the medical industry, beginning with basic research. In fact, it wasn’t until 2001 that the National Institutes of Health even mandated the inclusion of women and minorities in clinical studies. Female practitioners are still a minority, too — as of 2012, just 32 percent of all physicians and surgeons were women, according to U.S. Census data.
The omission of women is especially baffling from a business perspective, considering healthcare consumers in the United States and the U.K., among other nations, are “overwhelmingly female,” a 2015 report from the Harvard Business Review states. And, they make roughly 80 percent of family healthcare decisions in American households, a 2014 collaborative study found.
Today, while more research studies include women subjects than in the past, women’s illnesses — and their pain — are still often not fully recognized and addressed by professionals. That’s why women like Isabelle are increasingly stepping in to start their own medical companies.
Factoring Women In
For nearly 30 years, Dr. Marianne Legato has been at the forefront of tackling our poor understanding of differences in men’s and women’s physiology. And in 2006, the author and researcher founded the New York City Foundation for Gender-Specific Medicine to support studies that look at how biological sex affects human functions and disease.
Back in the 1990s when she was starting out, Legato says doctors were under-diagnosing female patients, “and certainly under-treating them,” for a variety of ailments due to widespread failure in understanding how women’s bodies function differently from men’s, often in critical ways. Doctors did not realize, for instance, that heart disease in women presents differently than in men, she says. And everything from how we process different types of pain to how prone we are to hiccups varies between male and female patients.
In fact, the shortage of medical studies that include women can leave doctors in the dark as to how to treat women effectively. For example, so little research exists on how prescription medications affect pregnant and lactating women — and so few drugs have been approved for prenatal use — that the U.S. government last year established a task force to both find and address these gaps in knowledge.
The effects of this ignorance can be severe — even deadly. In 2015, ThinkProgress reported on a woman who was told by doctors that her abnormally heavy periods were a manifestation of mental health issues, when the culprit was actually uterine fibroids, a potentially life-threatening condition that requires surgery. A 2017 investigation by BuzzFeed found dozens of other women with similar stories.
Failing to recognize the differences between men’s and women’s physiology frequently impacts women’s experiences with doctors, who may simply disregard women’s complaints. According to a 2014 survey by the National Pain Report that polled more than 2,500 women patients, nearly 45 percent said doctors told them the pain they were experiencing was “all in their head,” and just over 51 percent were told: “You look good, so you must be feeling better.”
As a result, women can be reluctant to discuss their symptoms. Specifically, researchers at the Yale School of Public Health discovered in a 2015 study that younger women were more likely to dismiss early indications of heart attacks because “they were concerned about initiating a false alarm in case their symptoms were due to something other than a heart attack.”
The cumulative result? Although men are statistically more likely to die younger for a variety of reasons, including from heart disease, “women live more debilitated lives in terms of health and ends of lives,” Legato says.
Addressing Women’s Needs
Amid the real need to better protect women’s health, a growing number of female medical experts are determined to improve outcomes by building businesses that tackle a variety of health concerns, many of which can benefit from a woman’s point of view.
Having women involved in finding solutions makes a difference, says Dr. Anitha Rao. She aims to make caring for dementia patients easier through her venture, Neurocern, which uses technology to create care regimens. Rao says dementia is a more serious problem for women in two key ways. First, they “are more likely to get dementia and to live longer with it and have worse outcomes,” she says, and second, they’re more likely to be caretakers to dementia patients.
Despite that fact, “up until now, doctors have been using a one-size-fits-all model for care — in terms of diagnosis as well as creating a care plan that’s meaningful for the patients and families,” Rao says. By contrast, Neurocern crafts personalized plans based on users’ responses to detailed surveys that account for differences in how dementia manifests in men and women.
Dr. Sophia Yen, meanwhile, is working to help women by improving access to affordable birth-control products. She’s the founder of birth-control distributor Pandia Health, and says that “as a woman, I intimately know the products, the pain points, the customers and where to find them.”
But as company leaders, women like Yen and Rao are still a minority in the health industry. A 2015 report from health-focused venture fund Rock Health found that just 21 percent of executives and 21 percent of board members of Fortune 500 healthcare companies are women.
The low number of women executives hurts health companies, says investor and entrepreneur Michelle Dipp. She’s the co-founder of OvaScience, a global fertility-research company, and of the Longwood Fund, which invests in medical startups — many of them run by women. In her experience as an investor, “diversity makes companies more successful. The more creativity of thought you have, the better.”
Despite the challenge of breaking into this male-dominated industry, more women are starting healthcare businesses launching ventures that deal in everything from cancer research to exploring mitochondrial diseases.
Growing awareness of the problem is encouraging, but as Legato states, “We still have a lot of work to do.”
Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series spotlighting female medical entrepreneurs who serve other women. Join us this week and next to learn more about the work of Michelle Dipp, Anitha Rao, Sophia Yen and Marje Isabelle.