May is not the Only Time to Talk About Women

7 Ways Women Are Left out of the Healthcare System

Jeanette Numbers

May is a month dedicated to women. But if we really want to celebrate women, we have a lot of work to do. So this May, I’m sharing seven ways women have been left behind by the healthcare system.

As an East Coaster, a woman, and a mother, May is usually a nice month for me. We’re finally turning the corner on better weather, it’s Women’s Health Month, and on Sunday my family will *hopefully* make me breakfast in bed. But this May, things have felt different. In a month dedicated to women (why we only get one designated month is a mystery to me), one question keeps pestering me: Why are we still operating in a healthcare system that doesn’t take our health or our bodies seriously? If we really want to celebrate women and the female body, we have a lot of work to do. So this May, I’m going to do my part in moving the conversation along by highlighting some of the ways women have been left behind. I want to talk about the messy stuff. The stuff that has long been taboo, even amongst ourselves -- periods, body size, menopause, and breast health. For those of us interested in more than just the sexy topics of fertility and kegels, let’s get into it.

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Let’s Talk About Tech, Baby…

1. Stop Thinking About Women’s Health as the Next Land Grab

Women’s health has emerged as a greenfield in the healthcare space, and investors and innovators are setting their sites on female-focused products. To be sure, there is money to be made with $50 Billion in projected revenue by 2025. But, in order to make a positive impact on women's health and change outcomes we need to understand true lived experiences, and not just the made-for-TV versions.

As a senior-level Industrial Designer and Cofounder I am a leader in the design industry. A designer's job is to be the voice of the people; to translate patient needs to technologists and technology to patients. But, too often I am the only woman in the room—not to mention one of very few women in my role nationally. With women’s health gaining attention we are seeing an increase in conferences and VC groups, many led by men. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve wondered aloud if the men speaking are genuinely interested in solving for women’s health—or if they are simply opportunistic investors who would rather not get into the details.

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2. Anatomy 101: One Size Does Not Fit All

Health products often include wearables and sensors that are worn on the body to help doctors monitor patient conditions. Time and time again, these devices are designed to fit a male body first, and the female body second (if at all). It should not be a surprise or an afterthought that women’s bodies are different from men’s, and like the fashion industry learned centuries ago, one size does not fit all. 

In my years of designing wearables we’ve taught healthcare startups this important lesson many times. We recently completed a project for Cambridge Heartwear. The founders knew their ECG chest strap was ill-equipped to handle female bodies (in fact, to their credit, they were testing the straps with the Harvard women’s rowing team to try and solve this problem). We developed a discrete form that fit around breasts of all sizes and shapes, allowing women to move freely, unhindered in their normal activities.

In the healthcare space, wearables can save lives. But in order to function correctly, they must fit properly. Accounting for female ergonomics is not optional.

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Taboo No More!

3. Boobs are Still a Laughing Matter, Apparently

Tits, boobies, jugs... have I caught your attention? Even though breast cancer has its own month, tougher topics like mastectomies and breast-feeding are rarely discussed in detail. While I’ve had the pleasure of working with innovative teams doing great work in the space, such as Brilliantly, I’ve also been to conferences where attendees—medical professionals—still chuckle when the topic of breasts is breached. Don’t get me wrong: humor, when done authentically and respectfully, is welcome. But too often it misses the mark. When will we grow up?

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4. One Topic Nobody Wants to Mention, Period.

Periods are one of the most taboo cross-gender topics on the menu. But for most women, it’s something that is taken into consideration every day. Whether we’re tracking our period, taking medication to control the cycle of our period, having our period, or worrying about missing our period, it’s a part of our daily lives. Period! It’s time we stopped acting as if this extremely natural, healthy process was a shameful secret that must be discussed only amongst women, and with discretion. In March, we took a promising first step. As of March 27th 2020, menstruation products now qualify as medical expenses. For the first time ever you can use funds in your HSA account or FSA to purchase these essentials. Deep inside the Corona Relief Package aka (the CARES Act) is Sec. 3702, an amendment which states that money spent on menstrual products—tampons, pads, liners, cups, and sponges counts as expenses incurred for medical care. Menstrual products were never before recognized as medical care items, and this war has raged on for years. It was about time for a win for women who menstruate!

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5. From Hormonal to Hysterical

The (deliberate?) misunderstanding of women’s health goes way back. Let’s start with the most obvious example: Menopause is one of the most overlooked women’s health issues—yet it affects 100% of women. Lots to unpack here about why it’s not seen as newsworthy to talk about a monumental event in EVERY woman’s life. For starters, ageism in the media has made women practically invisible after age 45. Combine that with lack of research and multi-symptom effects (anxiety/depression, brain fog, hot flashes…) and you have a recipe for disaster. Our ongoing work with Embr shows our commitment to bringing this transformational stage in women’s lives to the forefront.

Unfortunately, there are an alarming amount of health issues women face that are misdiagnosed, left untreated, or worse, entirely dismissed as rooted in anxiety or hypochondria. Take a look at the “disease” Hysteria for all you need to know about that. We need to stop framing women’s health woes as an issue of “inconvenience,” and start talking about how science can address these very real needs.

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6. Is Safe Contraception the Exception?

Over the decades, several birth control products have caused unexpected pregnancies, serious medical conditions, lawsuits, and in worst cases; wrongful death. Products like Essure, which claimed to be safe, became controversial when thousands of women insisted that Bayer hid its serious health risks from the public. The point needs to be raised: we would never allow such oversights to occur for heart disease medication and yet with birth control, there is a shocking level of complacency in the space.

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7. Give Me a Sign

Women and men’s bodies differ not only in anatomy, but in symptoms for common physical and mental health issues. For example, while most people can name commonly known heart attack symptoms such as discomfort in the right side of the chest and a dull aching sensation, many do not know that these symptoms are often more strongly experienced by men, and that the more prominent symptoms for women can differ. The problem extends beyond symptoms, too. Even medications work differently among sexes. There is much more work to be done to fully understand how women and men differ, and it starts with ensuring women are equally included in biomedical research and clinical trials.

Women Rule

Women make the majority of household and extended family healthcare decisions. It’s time to start acknowledging it.

Despite being so fundamentally ignored by the healthcare system, women are still driving the decisions and therefore, controlling the purse strings. Women spend more time making economic purchasing decisions for their household and extended families, accounting for 85% of all purchases, and controlling $18 trillion in spending. I like to think that eventually, we’ll either earn the respect of the industry, or we’ll buy it—by spending on companies and products that improve our lives and wellbeing. 

Ultimately, if I leave with you anything today, it’s that these topics cannot and should not be contained to one month of the year. Don’t wait for permission to innovate. Don’t wait for salvation to come from the top down. Let’s stop expecting men to pay attention to women’s health because frankly they can’t handle it.

We are the ones with the lived experiences... women are still the future.

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