When Marianne Sarcich, 56, was diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago, her oncologist prescribed medication that blocked the production of oestrogen in breast tissue. Sarcich was required to track her menstrual cycle and would be prescribed a different hormone blocker once she reached menopause.
As oestrogen is a key component of cognitive function, Sarcich found her memory was deteriorating and it was becoming difficult for her to track her cycle manually.
“Initially, it was fairly simple to continue tracking my period, but the further I moved into perimenopause, the trickier it became. Blocking the body’s ability to use oestrogen impacts memory and also, there is less [cyclical] pattern than we are used to,” she says.
It was then that she started using the menstrual cycle tracking feature of the Garmin app and shared this information with her oncologist.
“As I pulled out my phone in my oncology appointments, it took the burden of remembering off me.”
Sarcich had also undergone breast reconstruction surgeries and began relying on the Garmin smartwatch to track her daily steps and regain her physical strength. She also tracked her sleep schedule to help cope with insomnia, a symptom that can affect up to 70 per cent of recently treated cancer patients.
This is one way in which a specialised brand of technology is helping women find solutions to serious health issues. The term Female Technology, or FemTech, was coined in 2016 by Ida Tin, the founder of Clue, a period-tracking app.
FemTech can include wearable technology, software, diagnostic tools and apps catered to women’s health and well-being, and can cover a range of areas, including reproductive health, pregnancy and infant care, and sexual health and hygiene. Apart from offering tools to accurately report symptoms, FemTech also helps women manage chronic conditions and take preventive measures.
It was in 1993 that the National Institutes of Health Revitalisation Act mandated the inclusion of women in clinical trials and research in the US. With research lacking in the understanding of women’s health (and subsequently, treatment), FemTech is increasingly becoming the solution to bridging this gap.
Despite this, FemTech is largely underserved, according to research by Frost & Sullivan presented at the recently concluded Arab Health.
In several cultures, several aspects of women’s health are still not discussed openly. Case in point, menopause is called “sin el yaess” in Arabic, which translates to “the age of despair”, signalling the negative perception of this time in a woman’s life. The secrecy around menopause increases the likelihood of disinformation or, worse, a wrong diagnosis. Coupled with stigmatisation, cultural context dictates how we perceive natural bodily phenomenon.
This is not to say that the region is devoid of dedicated solution providers. Iameno, a FemTech platform focusing on perimenopause and menopause, hopes to normalise these conversations in the Mena region and wants women to take greater care of their health.
“As these conversations are barred, women may not have anyone to talk to about their situation or they may be ashamed to discuss it with their doctor,” says Farah Dehmouni, founder of Iameno.
The website – and yet-to-launch app – are aimed at bridging this gap by providing expert advice, guidance and tools that women need to identify and understand their symptoms. It offers holistic expertise, from medical to nutritional and lifestyle.
The web app also has the functionalities of a social media platform where women can register, create a profile and connect with others.
As with other FemTech apps, such as Stella by Vira Health in the UK and Peanut in the US, the chat functionality allows women to share their experiences, feel validated (as opposed to risking dismissal) and recognise that they are not alone.
“Perimenopause may begin 10 years before menopause, and for some women that may be in their late thirties,” says Dehmouni. “Hormone levels drop, and it has a significant impact on your physical and mental well-being. When you are going through this phase, you feel alone and misunderstood. Even doctors might not know what you are going through.”
She says the platform helps women identify the temporary hormonal transition instead of worrying themselves with a self-diagnosis such as cancer, which may have similar symptoms – hot flushes and hair loss, for instance – as perimenopause.
Dehmouni developed the app for perimenopause and menopause because she noticed a gap in FemTech offerings worldwide.
According to the FemTech Industry in the UAE report published by FemTech Analytics in Q4 2021, FemTech businesses in the Mena region account for 5.8 per cent (or US$1.7 billion) of the $29bn invested in digital health in 2021 worldwide, according to the Frost & Sullivan presentation. Menopause, longevity and mental health, then, continue to be sectors that are underserved.
Dehmouni, 46, credits her experiences behind the development of a targeted platform.
“I thought if I am in this situation [not knowing much about menopause], every other woman might be too. Such a platform would have helped me learn more about it, rather than worrying unnecessarily. Iameno is meant to be a transparent and accessible platform for women’s health in the region.”
Suchitra, 45, is no stranger to endometriosis disrupting her life, until she started using the Flo period-tracker app. By taking other variables (headaches, mood swings and gastrointestinal symptoms) into account, the app has helped her plan – with greater accuracy – life around her cycle.
“It is no longer a big source of anxiety,” she says.
While tracking health patterns, women are also more likely to identify something that seems amiss. “When I feel a bit ‘off’ – either physically or mentally – one of the first things I do is check Flo to see where I am in my cycle to identify changes in symptoms, patterns and durations, which I would have missed otherwise,” Suchitra says.
“For example, I had only started PMS symptoms in the last few years and [by recording the frequency and pattern], my doctor and I could confirm that it was PMS and not, say, a mental health issue.”
While concerns about privacy and ethical issues remain, FemTech products provide healthcare services access to real-time data from women across all ethnicities and age groups – which was previously inaccessible and difficult to gather.
The global FemTech industry is estimated to be worth $79.4bn by 2025. As the prevalence of chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and arthritis tend to be higher in women, continued funding and innovation in FemTech becomes even more relevant and critical.