How can digital technology and AI help deliver the women’s health strategy?
Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of chairing a panel at Intelligent Health UK on the topic of how digital technology and AI can help deliver the women’s health strategy. I was joined by a fantastic group of experts: Dame Lesley Regan – Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Imperial College London; Pahini Pandya – CEO & Co-Founder at Panakeia Technologies (a DigitalHealth.London Accelerator company); Shardi Nahavandi – CEO and Founder at Tuune; and Dr. Natalie Nunes, Consultant Obstetrician Gynaecologist, Chelsea Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust (and a Horizon Fellow).
The Women’s Health Strategy aims to improve the health and wellbeing of women across the country. The initial consultation received nearly 100,000 responses and a Vision for the Women’s Health Strategy for England was published on 23 December 2021.
With the publication of the final strategy imminent, the Intelligent Health UK conference on the 6th-7th April provided the perfect stage to host a discussion on how AI and digital health could help deliver the strategy. A vibrant discussion with our panel of experts highlighted the huge opportunity and potential solutions…
The many opportunities for change in Women’s Health
As a Consultant Obstetrician Gynaecologist, Dr Natalie Nunes witnesses the challenges facing Women’s Health services every day; “we so often reach the end of our list of options when it comes to solutions for women – this means women often end up living with a condition.” Natalie believes that data and AI could help bring about solutions and alternatives for common problems such as preterm labour, “clinicians have sight of patients’ journeys and the challenges faced and this is an opportunity to start the discussion about solutions”. Part of the problem however is “getting clinicians to trust the AI, getting them to try something different and having access to the right expertise in the NHS.”
Dame Lesley Regan, a globally renowned expert on gynaecology and a long-time advocate for women’s healthcare, highlighted how crucial the Women’s Health strategy will be as this is an area that “has been disadvantaged for decades.” She identified that “the NHS is currently a disease intervention service, but we know that it is better to prevent. You can predict when a woman is going to seek help from health professionals throughout her life, for contraception, fertility and menopause. We are missing a trick by not prioritising access to these services for the 51% of population they affect.”
Lesley also acknowledged that the Women’s Health Strategy should not only be about reproductive health but also about the importance of healthy aging. Women are usually post-menopausal longer than they are pre-menopausal so other conditions which affect women later in life, such as heart disease and frailty, are important factors when considering solutions for women’s health.
Is digital the solution?
The importance of shifting the approach to Women’s Health was also highlighted by Pahini Pandya, CEO and Co-Founder of Panakeia, a UKCA-certified and CE marked AI software which instantly provides pathologists the same information as lab-based tests by analysing breast cancer biopsy images during initial examination.
Pahini felt the “need to start looking at the solutions and the ecosystem that helps bring the solutions to fruition.” One of the biggest issues facing companies like Panakeia, is funding. It would make a huge difference if more government grants and venture capital funding were available to women’s health focused businesses as this is an area of healthcare with so much opportunity for innovation.
This is one of the reasons why Shardi Nahavandi, CEO and Founder at Tuune, despite being a UK-based company decided to take her initiative to the US first; “it is easier to get funding, you have a much larger market share when you can deliver straight to consumers, and you don’t face the many challenges of trying to sell to the NHS.” This was a real reminder of the importance of system levers and enablers for accelerating tech adoption in the NHS, as part of the Women’s Health Strategy. There is an opportunity to look to other countries, such as Israel, which are thinking hard about how to realise the benefits of digital health for women, through organisations like the Sheba Women’s Health Innovation Centre run by Dr Avi Tsur.
Women’s reproductive health is one of the key areas due to be addressed in the strategy and Tuune is a platform which helps women choose the right contraception using a smart, regulated algorithm. Shardi explained, “contraception is often thought of just as a way of preventing pregnancy, but hormonal contraception is used for many other conditions for example in treating polycystic ovary syndrome and painful periods. Algorithms have huge potential in this area as there are more than 45 different hormonal symptoms and over 300 different contraceptives. This is too much for any clinician to know in full and therefore providing algorithm support can enhance their experience.”
The Covid-19 pandemic, although negatively affecting women’s health in so many ways, brought about positive advancements too. For example, telemedicine was introduced to abortion services which improved the experience for women and in the last few weeks parliament has voted to make telemedicine for early medical abortion permanent in England. This reverses the Government’s previous decision to end access to the telemedical pathway and is based on the evidence showing that it is safe, effective, timely and more accessible than the alternative. Lesley felt that virtual consultation specifically made a massive difference in the lives of her female patients; “why make my patients come down to London to see me when I can triage virtually and only see those needed.”
Ensuring digital and AI don’t disadvantage
As an audience member at the session raised, it is important when considering the use of digital in Women’s Health services, and across healthcare in general, to ensure that the technologies don’t put certain groups at a disadvantage. Pahini felt that we must “prioritise and build solutions that consider those constraints”.
But there is potential for AI and digital to be used to counteract health inequalities and Shaardi commented that “Tuune is helping women with different income levels, education levels and health literacy, but the beauty of a precision algorithm is that it can stratify groups and provide individualised care and education. We are already gaining insights through the platform on how different women deal with different information and we can therefore tailor to their needs.”
Lesley added that “black women are four times more likely to die during pregnancy. AI should utilise data to understand why and more generally to come to realisations about social determinants of disease.” One company actively looking at how to do this is Accelerator alumnus, Peppy Health. Last year they launched their Black Mums Matter Too campaign to take action against maternal mortality rates for Black mums and their babies. Participants in the campaign receive support via the Peppy app and provide vital insights for the healthcare community.
Whilst innovators must ensure they take health inequalities into account when building their products and services, government initiatives are also required to ensure social determinants of healthcare are considered.
What will the impact of the Women’s Health strategy be?
Following the discussion, I am more convinced than ever of the importance of the Women’s Health strategy in bringing the challenges in this area to the fore. I am also encouraged by the many opportunities there are for tech and AI to make an impact, and by the passionate individuals, including these panellists, who are at the forefront of driving vital change for women.
Want to learn more? Check out Jenny’s Digital Health blog on FemTech as a key part of the women’s health strategy.
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Panakeia is currently one of 21 digital health companies on the DigitalHealth.London Accelerator programme.
The DigitalHealth.London Accelerator is a collaborative programme funded by London’s three Academic Health Science Networks – UCL Partners, Imperial College Health Partners, and the Health Innovation Network, MedCity, CW+ and receives match funding from the European Regional Development Fund.