CEO and board member, Organon.
Women are foundational to a healthier world, yet for decades, there has been a need to increase investment in the health of women.
Consider these sobering facts:
- About 50% of pregnancies worldwide are unplanned.
- Every two minutes, a woman dies during pregnancy or childbirth. In the United States, the maternal mortality rate is the highest of all developed nations and over 80% of pregnancy-related deaths are considered preventable.
- Globally, one in 10 women of reproductive age experience endometriosis, a painful and often debilitating condition, which is often referred to as the “missed disease” due to the lack of diagnosis and treatment options.
- There are remarkably few options to manage menopause, despite its prevalence and societal impact. According to one study, 83% of respondents felt menopause negatively affected their day-to-day life.
For far too long, women’s health issues have been underfunded, under-researched and underserved. The pandemic made things worse, with setbacks in women’s health. To gain back that progress—and tackle the conditions that have put a drag on society—this International Women’s Day, we are calling for increased investment in innovation for women’s health. This investment has a multiplier effect because improving women’s health also drives economic growth and GDP. In other words, women’s health is not a women’s issue—it’s an everyone issue.
Today, there are promising indications of innovation the world over. However, much more is needed to create a sustainable and thriving ecosystem of research and development that will enable new and needed solutions to be discovered, developed and made available to all women.
An Investment, Not A Cost
Historically, women’s health has occupied a small space in the portfolios and R&D efforts of large pharma companies. And while startup investments in femtech are growing, it’s not enough. “Approximately 1 percent of healthcare research and innovation is invested in female-specific conditions beyond oncology,” according to McKinsey. In 2022, the FDA approved 37 prescription drugs; yet just two of those drugs were for health conditions that only affect women.
What’s more, research shows that investing in women’s health is an investment, not a cost. It is estimated that if we invest “$300 million in women’s health research across just three diseases, we get $13 billion in returns to our economy.”
Innovation To Tackle Our Societal Challenges
There are examples from around the world where innovation in women’s health can reduce treatment gaps, increase equity, and bolster society:
Tackling unplanned pregnancy to unleash economic productivity. An unplanned pregnancy can limit a girl’s or woman’s economic and life opportunities. It also takes a huge toll on the healthcare system, costing the U.S. healthcare system more than $5 billion annually in direct and indirect costs.
One analysis revealed that each dollar “invested in meeting the unmet need for
contraceptives yields in the long-term $120 in accrued annual benefits.” Despite that ROI, of the 257 million women globally who want to avoid pregnancy, 67% use no contraceptive method at all. As for those who use contraception, many use it inconsistently or incorrectly. This speaks to the need to continue to innovate and find new contraceptive options, including non-hormonal contraception and male contraception.
While there has been progress, we need to recognize the major challenge ahead, which is to reach and empower the people most in need. Much of the inequity in information and access to contraception has resided among women with low socioeconomic status, who are more likely to have an unintended pregnancy, increasing their vulnerability and further decreasing their economic and other life opportunities. By investing in new and relevant educational resources and new approaches to access, we can empower all women and girls with the opportunity to achieve their potential.
Increasing fertility rates can stabilize economies. Today, more than 90 countries have birth rates below the 2.1 average, which is the number needed to replace their population. About 23 nations—Japan, Spain, Korea, and China, among them—are expected to see their populations decline by 50% before the end of the century. This population decline can negatively impact global growth and destabilize economies, placing a higher dependence on a smaller workforce to support social, health and retirement systems, as well as national security needs and national productivity levels.
Yet by expanding access to IVF and other techniques, more families would have the chance to grow. Egg freezing is a great example where only a tiny percentage of younger women can access this technology (and in some countries, only for medical reasons). Around the world, the costs of fertility procedures often fall on individual women and couples, rather than being covered by national health systems or insurance. In addition to expanding access to existing treatments, there is also a need to create more successful, less time-consuming and less invasive fertility treatments, diagnostics and devices so families and countries can benefit from fertility treatments at scale.
Leveraging innovation as part of the equitable response to the maternal mortality crisis. The pandemic has backtracked progress in women’s health, but even before the pandemic, the world was off track to reach the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on maternal mortality. For example, in Europe and Northern America, the maternal mortality rate increased by 17% from 2016 to 2020, and in many other regions, rates stagnated.
New legislative initiatives from Congress and the White House mean the ongoing maternal health crisis is finally getting attention in the United States. New treatments and devices could help ramp up the response and potentially reduce some of the drivers of maternal morbidity and mortality, including pre-term labor, postpartum hemorrhage and other conditions. Access to the most up-to-date health technology for vulnerable populations, especially Black and Native American women in the United States, is a critical part of this equation due to the disproportionate impact maternal morbidity and mortality has on those groups.
I find myself pointing to the need for a rich ecosystem of innovation and support to create the response these societal challenges demand. Global action is needed—but the private sector can play an important role. The business and the finance communities have an opportunity to support innovations in women’s health by contributing research dollars to institutions and giving venture capital funding to startups working to solve critical challenges.
Employers can also play a role. They should frequently evaluate their benefits to include access to new care options on the market, such as reimbursing women for fertility treatments, providing menopause relief benefits and offering paid family leave. Now is the right time, as companies have fresh memories of the life-changing impact employee benefits had during the pandemic. Those benefits can be expanded to provide relief to women as they return to the workforce at pre-pandemic levels, creating not only a more loyal and resilient employee population but a healthier world.
Today, I believe we are at a critical juncture, and there is an urgency to act now to achieve the progress the world needs. On International Women’s Day, let’s remind ourselves that this is a moment for all critical stakeholders to invest and scale health solutions—so that in the coming years and decades, we can look back and see the substantial progress we have made in solving these societal issues.
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