World Bank and WHO have agreed that half the world still lacks access to essential health services, while 100 million people are being pushed into extreme poverty because of health expenses. A study has found that “although the quantity rather than the quality of health services has been the focus historically in developing countries, ample evidence suggests that quality of care (or the lack of it) must be at the center of every discussion about better health”. Another study has found that adults in the U.S. are far more likely than those in other countries to go without needed care because of costs and to struggle to afford basic necessities such as housing and healthy food, a study has found. They are also more likely to report having poor health and emotional distress.
Pandemic has exacerbated existing healthcare inequalities and disparities in how accessible and inclusive healthcare provision is in some countries and although things won’t change any time soon, at least not dramatically, it’s worth noting that there are many innovative companies out there working on solutions that have the potential to significantly change how we provide and receive healthcare. And many of these companies are female-led.
Featured below are seven female leaders changing the narrative around inclusivity and accessibility of the healthcare industry, from supporting LGBTQ+ communities and neurodiverse patients to women who have experienced pregnancy loss or abortion, to patients suffering from hormonal imbalance.
Araxie Boyadjian, cofounder of LVNDR Health
“What inspired me to join as a cofounder to LVNDR Health was recognizing the importance of destigmatizing the sexual health space for all bodies. In this regard, I could draw on my own lived experience, as well as an amalgamation of stories from the LGBTQ+ community, particularly instances where they felt marginalized by the existing healthcare system,” starts her story Boyadjian.
When she joined her cofounder Christopher El Badaoui in 2019, they were building the initial version of LVNDR Health which was being set up in London. In a nutshell, LVNDR is a digital platform that improves sexual wellbeing for LGBTQ+ individuals and modernizes sexual healthcare for clinics. By facilitating access to remote care and empowering users to safely explore their identity and sexuality in today’s healthcare landscape, LVNDR’ team aims to solve some of the main challenges LGBTQ+ community faces today, such as denied services on the basis of their sexual orientation, waiting years to receive gender-affirming care, and having to justify their needs to healthcare providers, and discomfort in reaching out to non-LGBTQ+ providers out of fear of discrimination. “These problems are only exacerbated if they live outside of major cities, where access to healthcare is scarce, and where stigma and homophobia are more prevalent,” adds Boyadjian.
One of LVNDR’s first accomplishments was the contract with Sexual Health London, a service run collectively by 30 London boroughs that provides comprehensive remote sexual health testing resources to constituents and is the largest sexual health service in Europe. The objective of this collaboration was to research the benefit of remote intervention tools within sexual health services, initially starting with medication adherence for PrEP users, a treatment that needs to be taken daily to prevent HIV from being contracted.
In September 2021, Boyadjian and her cofounder closed a $2 million seed funding round from a diverse group of institutional and angel investors with the majority of the support coming in from queer, and female-led investors, which Boyadjian describes as a “massive win”. No wonder, since acquiring capital in this space is super tough especially as sexual health still remains a highly stigmatized space.
Colleen A. Kraft, MD, Senior Medical Director for Clinical Adoption at Cognoa
As many as 25% of children are at risk for developmental delay. The most recent CDC study shows that one in 44 children has been identified with ASD. Despite increasing prevalence and awareness, the average age of autism diagnosis (between the ages of 4-5) has not changed in decades. Autism can be reliably diagnosed in some children as early as 18 months of age and parents, on average, report developmental concerns in their children as early as 14 months, yet wait times for a specialist diagnosis can vary from 6 months to 2 years. The wait is agonizing for parents who see their child falling farther and farther behind their peers. An earlier diagnosis can lead to earlier initiation of therapies when a child’s brain is rapidly growing, making interventions much more effective.
Cognoa is a pediatric behavioral health company developing digital diagnostic and therapeutic products with the goals of enabling equitable access to care and improving the lives and outcomes of children and families living with behavioral health conditions, starting with autism. “Our first product, Canvas Dx, is intended to help primary care clinicians diagnose or rule out autism in young children ages 18 to 72 months and became the first FDA-authorized diagnosis aid for autism in 2021. It was also previously granted Breakthrough Device designation by the FDA. We are now working to introduce Canvas Dx to the healthcare community – and that is very exciting,” shares Kraft.
Kraft is the 2018 Past President of the American Academy of Pediatrics and has been working in clinical practice for over 30 years. As a primary care pediatrician, she sees so many children who are left waiting long periods of time for specialty evaluations to address their developmental concerns. She views the potential for a product like CanvasDx to assist in evolving the role of primary care clinicians “from a referral source to the “quarterback” for the families of these children. She joined Cognoa in late 2019 to influence the development of this technology to fit within a primary care workflow and to advocate for changes that would enable diagnosis and management of behavioral health conditions, like autism, for many children in the primary care Medical Home.
Cognoa’s team also recognized that most of the current tools used by specialists in the diagnosis of autism were developed as research instruments based on a population of young white males. This means that differences in sex, race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status that affect the presentation of autism in children are often not accounted for and contribute to significant disparities in diagnosis and care. For example, girls and racial/ethnic minority children are less likely to receive an autism diagnosis at a similar age to boys and white children. “An objective, AI-based diagnosis aid that is consciously built on population-representative data could help guide more equitable clinical decisions. Technology has the potential to assist clinicians to make timely, accurate, and efficient diagnoses of autism in the primary care setting. This is a crucial first step for children and families to receive many early interventions and support,” concludes Kraft.
Kristy Chong, founder and CEO of Modibodi
“In 2011 my periods had not returned, I was suffering light incontinence after the birth of my second child, and I started training for a marathon. I needed a solution and when I looked around I realized the only thing available was disposable hygiene which is inconvenient, uncomfortable, and disastrous for the environment. I just felt we deserved something better to manage all life’s leaks,” shares Chong.
Her Australian-based business Modibodi officially launched in 2013, and close to 10 years later, has become one of the global leaders in leak-proof apparel, designing underwear, swimwear, activewear, maternity wear, and reusable nappies to replace disposable hygiene products and offer a sustainable solution to manage periods, incontinence, discharge, breast milk leaks, sweat, and more. Modibodi is one of those femcare businesses that completely revolutionized the space not only in product but the way in which we talk about periods and incontinence, and even convincing tech giant Facebook to overturn a ban in showing real period blood in content.
“Sustainability is at the heart of our daily operations and business decisions, we recently committed to being carbon neutral by 2023, to move all our fabrics to natural or recycled fabrics by the end of 2022, and we just launched the world’s first biodegradable, reusable range to provide a solution to the end of life waste problem,” adds Chong.
In August last year, Chong and her team have released new Adaptive Boyleg underwear – this style has been designed to make it easier for menstruators, and those who need leak protection from incontinence that are less mobile and may experience varying abilities. Because disabled people get periods, too.
Morenike Fajemisin, founder and CEO of Whispa Health
In Nigeria, young women will be shamed if they try to seek contraception and still shamed if they get pregnant outside marriage. Some people believe that it is ‘better’ for an eighteen-year-old to be pregnant and married off than for her to be single, sexually active, and using birth control or contraception. Underscoring this belief is the societal or religious expectation that women remain sexually pure (virgins till marriage), while, of course, men are allowed to explore. Thus, sex is seen as an activity only married women are entitled to and contraception as a way for single women to escape their punishment for having pre-marital sex.
“When I was only five years old, my cousin got pregnant and had to drop out of school. Young women dropping out of school because of pregnancy was fairly common, but this was the first time it had happened to someone close to me and it shaped my childhood in so many ways. As a young adult female, I experienced firsthand the shaming and insults that almost every young, sexually active, unmarried woman in Nigeria faces when trying to manage their own sexual health,” Fajemisin shares with me. In addition, in the early years of her career as a pharmacist, she had front row seats observing the difficulty in accessing sexual healthcare. She also realized that the challenges were prevalent not only in seeking contraception but in many other areas such as STI transmission and treatment. These experiences spurred her desire to build her own company in order to tackle these issues.
Launched in mid-2020 by Fajemisin, Whispa Health is an organization focused on improving access to sexual and reproductive health information, products, and services for young people in Nigeria. It aims to offer a one-stop solution to sexual and reproductive healthcare challenges and provide non-judgmental telehealth consultations, convenient and affordable access to contraceptives, laboratory and home STD tests, cervical cancer screening, vaccination, and more. “Our primary customers are females who are 18-35 years old, single and either in the university or post-secondary school, women who have just started their first job, and married women who have just had their first or second child.”
Although the company hasn’t raised any external funding, the value of building this proposition has been recognized by grants received from the Ingenuity fund, Bayer Foundation, and Google Black Founder’s Fund. And with nearly 20,000 app downloads and over 7,000 young people consulting Whispa’s doctors on various intimate health issues in such a young and underserved market, the business opportunity is clearly there.
Roopan Gill, OBGYN, cofounder and Executive Director at Vitala Global Foundation
Vitala Global Foundation is a Canadian not-for-profit organization founded with the aim to co-design open-source self-care digital solutions with women, girls, and their communities addressing the most stigmatized sexual and reproductive health issues. “I decided to build Vitala Global from my personal experiences working as an obstetrician-gynecologist in settings like Northern Nigeria and Yemen where I witnessed women dying of unsafe abortions. Through those experiences, I realized there are gaps in truly localized solutions for global problems. Unsafe abortion is one of the top four reasons women and girls continue to suffer from mortality and morbidity in the world and it is the only one that is entirely preventable,” explains Gill.
1 in 3 women globally will have an abortion in their lifetime and every 23 minutes, a woman dies from unsafe abortion. Medication abortion has revolutionized this space as it is extremely safe with less than 1% complication rates. In addition to that, 1 in 4 women experiences a miscarriage globally. In humanitarian and fragile settings, the rates of unsafe abortion and mortality and morbidity are even higher, with rates as high as 60% in parts of Venezuela, one of the countries of focus for Vitala. “I wanted to build a company that authentically engages local communities, women, and girls living in the most challenging settings in the world to build quality digital solutions to address the most stigmatized sexual and reproductive health issues. I felt that this is essential if we truly want to move the needle on maternal mortality and morbidity, to meaningfully change systems that will allow women and girls to exercise their fullest reproductive autonomy.”
An example of Vitala’s work has been the co-design of a digital platform Aya Contigo, an evidence-based progressive web application, with over 1,000 Latinas and a dozen local and global organizations, which accompanies Venezuelan women and girls as they self-manage their medical abortions and advises them on contraceptive options. Using a harm-reduction approach, Aya Contigo provides information through the application, optional text notifications, and live chat support that refers them to appropriate services and empowers users emotionally through their journey. The North American arm of Vitala’s work is focused on reaching women and girls and people who identify as such in remote/rural areas and those who represent BIPOC communities.
Vitala’s major funders so far are Grand Challenges Canada OPTions initiative from whom they have received $200,000+ to date, an additional $160,000 from a collective of female philanthropists including The Case for Her, Natasha Dolby, and Jess Jacobs who provided catalytic funding that has been immensely helpful to build their local Venezuelan team and make product changes based on the iterative design process, and a few smaller checks received from BC Women’s Hospital Foundation for their Canadian work, the Butterfly Run and BC Women’s Hospital Foundation for the early pregnancy loss project, and some private donations.
“We are committed to building sustainable local solutions for global problems,” concludes Gill.
Sophie Smith, founder and CEO of Nabta Health
Smith founded Nabta Health in 2017 with the mission of empowering women in emerging markets to effectively manage their health. A few years ago, having just moved to the UAE, she went to speak at a conference in Kuwait on diabetes. There, she got chatting to the organizer, not about diabetes but about the fact that she was pregnant; a fact he found surprisingly fascinating.
“One month later, he sent me a load of information about women’s health in the MENA region and asked if I would like to do something about women’s health together. I immediately said yes – I had set up four companies in four years; learning fast, making mistakes – and I knew instinctively that this was *the* company that I wanted to run, hopefully for the rest of my life. I told him I needed a couple of months to hand over my existing business interests and have the baby. In the end, we started work on Nabta Health the day my son was due, 21st March 2017,” starts Smith.
Nabta Health is a hybrid healthcare company, accelerating the detection, diagnosis, and treatment of chronic diseases in women in emerging markets. By combining the best of digital and traditional healthcare along clinical pathways, Nabta Health aims to empower women to identify and manage chronic diseases in an accessible, affordable, and goal-oriented way. Because of the nature of the market that Smith and her team operate across – the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia – which is incredibly disparate in terms of infrastructure, education, and access, they have deliberately designed the platform to be delivery mechanism agnostic, able to interface with populations and traditional care providers who would typically be perceived as impossible to reach.
Smith likes to think they’ve helped put femtech on the map in the Middle East and to normalize some of the conversations around women’s health – touching on everything from periods to perimenopause. And indeed: by building their first hybrid clinical pathways for chronic diseases impacting fertility, signing partnership agreements with some of the leading value-based healthcare providers in the UAE, and creating an engaged ecosystem for women’s health and wellness, Smith hopes to finally begin the process of commercializing the platform and scaling up in-country ahead of their launch in Saudi Arabia later this year.
Terry Weber, CEO of Biote
Hormones are essential for regulating most of our major bodily processes and help regulate anything from metabolism, blood sugar, and growth, to reproductive cycles, sexual function mood, and stress levels. It’s important to mention that although hormonal imbalances can affect both men and women, the symptoms can vary according to which gland is affected and whether the person is male or female.
Founded in 2012, Biote is a hormone optimization company with the single goal of identifying and treating imbalances in the production of hormones. Driving permanent industry innovation in the hormone optimization market, addressing the 200 million individuals in the U.S. who suffer from hormone imbalance, is not an easy task. Another target audience for Biote is healthcare providers treating those patients.
Let’s take menopause as an example. According to Weber, the negative symptoms that occur with aging are talked about as inevitable – people are supposed to accept that things like hot flashes, mood swings, brain fog, weight gain, etc. are “just part of getting older.” “But, today we know that these symptoms are associated with the natural decline of hormone production in our bodies as we age, and that hormone optimization therapy can help treat these symptoms, allowing people to feel their best at 50, 60, 70, and beyond,” she explains. There is also a significant lack of medical education about many critical areas of hormones, nutrition, brain health, and aging, during the period of menopause. “When it comes to women’s healthcare, in particular, almost 80% of medical residents report feeling barely comfortable discussing or treating menopause, and only 20% of OBGYN residency programs provide menopause training, mostly through elective courses. The science behind hormone optimization has been around for over 80 years – and yet, there still needs to be so much more awareness, education, and action among healthcare providers.”
In 2021, the company published a new retrospective study in the peer-reviewed “European Journal of Breast Health”, which showed that women who took testosterone via hormone pellets as part of their hormone replacement therapy had a 35.5% lower incidence of invasive breast cancer compared to the expected age-adjusted rates. This was the second, and largest, long-term study to demonstrate the relationship of testosterone pellet therapy to invasive breast cancer incidence in women.
In order to bring this story to the mainstream, on December 13, 2021, the company announced that Biote entered into a business combination agreement with Haymaker Acquisition Corp. III, with plans to be listed on NASDAQ in the first half of this year. Via this partnership, Weber will be taking the company public after the combination is completed. But, underscoring all of that, what Weber is most proud of is the fact that she and her team of practitioners have helped hundreds of thousands of people across the U.S. experience the life-changing benefits of hormonal therapy, “primarily women who have long been underserved in healthcare throughout their lifetimes”.