Why it’s time for healthcare to look beyond Typhoid Mary

Being female has never been more topical. #MeToo and the campaigns that are quite rightly bringing the prevalence of sexual harassment to the wider world, have become common subjects in the media and workplaces across the globe. In the year that marks 100 years since the women’s vote, it’s long overdue that we start thinking about equality for everyone, regardless of gender.

It’s always good to think about female health, its pioneers, and the medtech aimed at women, designed by women and made by women. At this particular time in history though, and on International Women’s Day, it seems more relevant than ever to recognise female achievements in healthcare and some of the innovative work taking place both now, and in the past.

We know there’s a long way to go. How many times do we hear that there are fewer women leading FTSE firms than men called John? In 2015 Rock Health’s Halle Tecco, covered an update on the company’s The State of Women report:

“Despite making up more than half the healthcare workforce, women represent only 21% of board members at Fortune 500 healthcare companies. Of the 125 women who carry an executive title, only five serve in operating roles as COO or president. And there’s only one woman CEO of a Fortune 500 healthcare company.”

There are moves to instigate change. In the US initiatives such as Developed by Women in Bio – an organisation helping to promote careers and entrepreneurship for women in life sciences – offers an intensive board competency building curriculum at George Washington University. Candidates will learn to understand the duties, responsibilities and commitments related to serving on public and private boards.

Back in the UK the narrowing of the gender divide has been documented in the NHS however, men are still the majority in senior roles.

NHS gender figures

According to just-released statistics from NHS Digital, the proportion of hospital and community doctors who are women has grown every year since 2009.

The figures show that, while women make up over three quarters of all NHS staff, they are still in the minority in senior roles.

37% of all senior roles are now held by women compared with 31% in 2009. 36% of consultants are now women compared with 30% in 2009.

At the other end of the pay scale, 74% of band 1 staff are women, while bands 2 to 7 all have ratios of at least four women to every one man.

There is some work to be done. But we do need to dig deeper than looking at the stats and ask where this disparity might originate. I’d like to know why we don’t know more about female healthcare pioneers? As a woman working in healthcare media and as a parent with a daughter, the focus on historical male achievement rather than female, doesn’t seem to diminish. As a child I was taught about the great work carried out by the likes of Louis Pasteur, Alexander Fleming and Edward Jenner. The only woman I recall being featured in my science lessons was Typhoid Mary – an apparently dirty and dangerous woman who spent years in isolation for infecting 51 people with typhoid (personally I’m more interested in why we haven’t questioned the treatment she was subjected to for being a typhoid carrier).

We could get angry but I’m inclined to feel sad that there are female medical pioneers that have largely gone unrecognised despite their groundbreaking work.

Virginia Apgar

Anyone who’s had a baby will be familiar with the Apgar score, the test that shows how a baby is doing post-birth. The test was devised in 1952 by Virginia Apgar. I find it pretty amazing that given that Apgar was not only the first woman to become a full professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, as well as designing a test that millions of parents across the world are familiar with, we’d be hard pushed to find anyone who’s heard to its creator.

Scotland’s first female doctor

What about Sophia Jex-Blake? Not only did she lead a campaign to improve female access to university education, studied medicine at a time (1869) when this was a rarity for women, but she became the first female doctor in Scotland. Don’t tell me –  you haven’t heard of her.

Chromosomes and HIV

Let’s consider the geneticist who discovered the XY chromosome in men and the XX chromosome in women – Nettie Stevens. How come she doesn’t feature alongside Edward Jenner?

One final go…and given that this person is still alive and won the Nobel prize for the discovery of HIV, you’re bound to have heard of Francoise Barre-Sinoussi. No?

It’s pretty disappointing. These are just a handful of the female pioneers in the healthcare sector but let’s face it, it’s unlikely that the majority of us have heard of many of them.

Back to the present day and something I’ve been writing about for a while now – femtech – is really coming to the fore. I like it, not solely for its female-focus, but for the way an industry is being built on finding real practical healthcare solutions for women, quite often coming from women themselves.

According to a new analysis from Frost & Sullivan, this market is on “the cusp of explosive growth. Spurred by almost $1 billion in funding over the last three years and a positive regulatory environment, femtech is emerging as the next big disruptor in the global healthcare market”.

I love femtech,  as anyone reading MPN or DigitalHealthAge.com will know.

Frost & Sullivan catergorises femtech as “software, diagnostics, products, and services that harness technology to improve women’s health”. KPMG figures highlight its potential to attract significant value –it was said to be worth $55bn in 2015.

So who are the pioneers we know about working in this sector? It seems that the term came from Ida Tin, founder and CEO of Clue, the period tracking app. She’s definitely an individual we need to have on our radar.

The sector has attracted significant media attention. A year ago Forbes’ Jill Richmond outlined The New Year of Optimism for Femtech; VentureBeat looked at The Rise of Femtech, while recently TechCrunch discussed ‘Femtech from head to toe at Disrupt Berlin’.

Femtech products have also attracted column inches. The Elvie Trainer, apparently a winner with A list celebrities, is a pelvic floor trainer “recommended by over 800 health and wellness professionals around the globe”.

Meanwhile the Fiera device has been designed to aid “intimacy with your partner and strengthen your emotional connection”. The product piqued the interest of the media with The San Francisco Chronicle picking up on its potential in an interview with the company’s Dr. Leah Millheiser, chief scientific officer.

It’s no coincidence that the femtech sector is largely driven by women. As we keep hearing about the under representation of women in tech and science jobs it’s great to see positive role models such as Clue’s Ida Tin, Lea Von Bidder – the brains behind the Ava fertility bracelet – and Tania Boler, co-founder of Chairo, the business behind the Elvie connected pelvic floor device.

While there is still some work to be done, things are looking positive. And with a raft of women flying the flag for science and technology it looks like it’s time to add to the tale of Typhoid Mary with a list of female achievement in the healthtech environment.



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