Women’s health has been ignored for most of history. Here’s why that’s changing and why it’s time to redouble efforts

After her doctor misdiagnosed her perimenopause as herpes, Halle Berry knew it was time to start a national conversation. Earlier this Women’s Health Month, the actress joined a group of US senators outside the Capitol to call for more federal funding for research into a critical part of the female experience that shouldn’t be difficult to fund, and much less argue. “We must eliminate the shame of menopause,” she said. “We have to talk about this very normal part of our lives that happens.”

Just having this public conversation is groundbreaking. Ten years ago the word “menopause” was barely spoken. “Women’s health” as a category did not exist for patients, entrepreneurs, employers or investors. You would have been surprised to discover that the largest employers in the United States offer fertility care, maternity benefits, or IVF. Back then, my industry (venture capital) didn’t even consider women’s health an investable category.

In that context, almost exactly 10 years ago, I met Kate Ryder. A former journalist at the time, Kate wanted to tackle the infamously bureaucratic and slow healthcare industry, a system that is hesitant to adopt new technologies and, until recently, treated women’s health like men’s health, ignoring the complex hormonal changes throughout a woman’s life. life. In fact, the inclusion of women in clinical trials did not become law until the early 1990s.

Kate’s vision, of a healthcare experience that would put the patient at the center of care for the first time, was incredibly compelling and visionary. My company, Female Founders Fund, wrote one of our first checks to the Maven Clinic and got a front-row seat as Kate built the first women’s health unicorn. Maven Clinic is now worth $1.35 billion and serves more than 2,000 employers, including giant corporations like Microsoft and AT&T. But more important than the statistics, Kate convinced employers that it is imperative to provide better benefits to women, and helped demonstrate to venture investors (and the medical industry) that women’s health has enormous potential as business that is well worth the investment. .

Since then, I’ve seen the trend change as more and more founders and investors pour money into women’s health. A great example: a few years ago, two women approached me about building a more holistic model of care for pregnancy, combining the best aspects of obstetric care and midwifery care into an evidence-based birth program tailored to the wishes and unique needs of each mother. And since the United States has the worst maternal mortality rate of all developed nations, the experience of pregnancy and childbirth needed to change. Adrianne and Elaine de Oula were convinced there was a better solution and once again put the patient experience at the center.

Oula has raised over $50 million in funding from investors, including the Female Founders Fund, and has facilitated over 1,500 births with a 26% better C-section rate compared to New York City benchmarks and a 61% lower preterm birth rate, all while maintaining an NPS customer experience score above 90.

Equally encouraging are the successful startups that are not within our portfolio.

Midi Health provides virtual care to women in menopause and perimenopause, and the results of this well-personalized care have been incredible. About 91% of their patients report that their symptoms improve after just two months of care. More than 94% of patients see an improvement in hot flashes within three months, 93% of patients report less insomnia in the first five months, and 92% say their mood improved in just two months. The company has raised more than $100 million to date, provides care in all 50 states, and now partners with major healthcare systems like Memorial Hermann and benefits providers like Progyny and Cleo.

And there are many other examples from the last decade, such as Kindbody, Carrot, Clue, Alife Health, that show that things are changing. Women benefit from improved solutions in a multitude of life experiences: menopause, IVF, endometriosis, fertility, hormonal health, childbirth, osteoporosis, cancer diagnosis and much more. Social momentum is also growing. Advocates like Elaine Welteroth and Serena Williams are raising awareness about critical issues related to better maternal options with the launch of the Birth Fund earlier this year. Last year, the president and Dr. Biden announced $100 million for women’s health initiatives and called on Congress to invest $12 billion in research, a move that was widely and rightly applauded. Of course, despite the progress, we still have a long way to go. Disproportionate funding is allocated to diseases that primarily affect men, while most medical professionals continue to ignore women’s pain rather than treat it.

But if ever there was a year to harness women’s momentum, it’s this year; It is right now, as the medical community finally begins to recognize that women’s health needs evolve at every stage of their lives.

Maternity care is ripe for innovation, yes, but it’s not the only area of ​​women’s health that deserves better options. Look no further than recent advances in the menopause arena. For example, just last year, the FDA approved Veozah, an oral medication for the treatment of hot flashes, bringing to market a new drug that may serve as a potential alternative to hormone replacement therapy. Researchers are also exploring other important ideas, such as whether collecting and freezing ovarian tissue during a woman’s 20s and 30s, only to transplant it back into the body years later, could restore the production of premenopausal hormones that could delay menopause. For too long, most obstetricians and gynecologists did not even receive formal training in menopause medicine, and unsurprisingly, most women went untreated. Ignoring these women was not only harmful: it also left $600 billion on the table. Now, menopause companies like Midi, Elektra Health and Amira are taking advantage of that opportunity.

Beyond menopause, recent research has also uncovered disparities across all types of conditions, which could translate into market opportunities. Women disproportionately suffer from chronic pain, fibromyalgia, autoimmune diseases, Alzheimer’s, migraines, and even anxiety and depression. Women with heart disease, diabetes, and chronic fatigue syndrome experience different symptoms than men. Discomfort is a routine part of femininity, but with research and innovation, it really shouldn’t be. Models like the Metrodora Clinic, launched by Instacart CEO Fidji Simo, are providing a model for how women should be treated in the medical world by taking a more holistic approach to complex neuroimmune diseases such as endometriosis, fatigue syndrome chronicle, POTS and more.

From an innovation perspective, we can also reimagine the poor tools and treatments that women have learned to tolerate our entire lives. We’ve seen some interesting advances here too, from a new IUD insertion device to a probiotic that soothes vaginal discomfort. But there are many more areas (mammograms, IUDs, tampons, speculas, and birth control pills, to name a few) that need improvement. As a friend of mine recently said, “If men had to get a Pap smear, a better solution would have been funded decades ago.”

More opportunities will mean more competition, and that’s a good thing. The addition of new players will constitute an even greater market opportunity, create healthy competition and incentivize all players to provide better and more accessible care. I recently asked a founder if she’s worried about a new entrant into the space she’s been leading for years. On the contrary: “Go ahead,” she said. “More competitors just validate our market.”

But while the private sector can set the wheels in motion, the public sector can solve problems that even the best startups can’t solve on their own. To create true health equity, the government must intervene to make these solutions viable for a much broader demographic. We need to see the launch of specific clinics dedicated to women’s health. We need to mandate a medical curriculum to address women’s needs, ultimately leading to a new standard of care. We need solutions for women’s health treatments, where care is less accessible. From creating avenues to mitigate the shortage of doulas (and other key providers) to directing insurance providers to fully cover more women’s health treatments and procedures, we need government and philanthropic partnerships to bring women’s health to the forefront. modern era.

When even a top actress can’t find a doctor who can distinguish an extremely common health condition affecting women from a sexually transmitted disease, we know we have a long way to go. What we are seeing today (some solutions, for some conditions, for some people) is just the beginning. We have made notable progress in identifying women’s needs and leveraging technology and talented entrepreneurs to create better solutions. Ten years from now, I hope women will have options as nuanced as they are, for every stage of their healthcare journey.

That would mean an explosion of innovation (and capital) in women’s health like we’ve never seen before. The time to finance and found is now. Women are ready for it.

Anu Duggal is a founding partner of Female Founders Fund, a venture capital firm that invests exclusively in companies founded by women.

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