CEO and board member, Organon.
Women are the foundation of a healthier world, but there has been a need for more investment in women’s health for decades.
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 countries and beyond 80% of pregnancy-related deaths are considered preventable.
- worldwide, one in 10 women of reproductive age experience endometriosis, a painful and often debilitating condition, often referred to as the “missed disease” due to the lack of diagnosis and treatment options.
- There are remarkably few options for managing menopause, despite its prevalence and societal impact. According to a study, 83% of respondents felt that menopause had a negative impact on their daily lives.
For far too long, women’s health issues have been underfunded, under-researched and under-served. The pandemic made things worse, with women’s health setbacks. To reclaim that progress – and address the circumstances that have strained society – we are calling for more investment in innovation for women’s health on this International Women’s Day. This investment has a multiplier effect because improving women’s health is also the driver of economic growth and GDP. In other words, women’s health is not a women’s issue – it’s everyone’s issue.
Today, there are promising indications of innovation all over the world. However, much more is needed to create a sustainable and thriving ecosystem of research and development that will enable new and necessary solutions to be discovered, developed and made available to all women.
An investment, no costs
historical, women’s health has occupied a small place in the portfolios and R&D efforts of major pharmaceutical companies. And as startup investment in femtech grows, it’s not enough. “About 1 percent of healthcare research and innovation is invested in women-specific conditions outside of oncology,” said McKinsey. In 2022, the FDA approved 37 prescription drugs; but only two of those drugs were for health problems that only affect women.
In addition, research shows that investing in women’s health is an investment, not an expense. It is estimated that if we “invest $300 million in women’s health research for just three diseases, we’ll get $13 billion back for our economy.”
Innovation to meet our societal challenges
There are examples from around the world where innovation in women’s health can reduce treatment gaps, increase equity and strengthen society:
Tackling unplanned pregnancy to unleash economic productivity. An unplanned pregnancy can limit a girl’s or woman’s economic and life chances. It also takes a huge toll on the health care system, costing the U.S. health care system more than anything $5 billion annual direct and indirect costs.
A analysis revealed that every dollar “invested in meeting the unmet need for
contraceptives provide $120 in accrued annual benefits in the long run. Despite that ROI, of the 257 million women worldwide who want to avoid pregnancy, 67% do not use any contraceptives at all. As for those who use birth control, many use it inconsistently or incorrectly. This points to the need to keep innovating and finding new birth control options, including non-hormonal contraception and male contraception.
While progress has been made, we must recognize that the greatest challenge lies ahead, which is to reach and empower those most in need. Much of the disparity in information and access to contraception is among women of low socioeconomic status, who are higher risk of an unintended pregnancy, increasing their vulnerability and further reducing their economic and other life chances. By investing in new and relevant learning resources and new approaches to access, we can empower all women and girls to reach their potential.
Rising fertility rates can stabilize economies. Today, more than 90 countries have birth rates below the average of 2.1, which is the number it takes to replace their population. About 23 nationsJapan, Spain, Korea and China, including Japan, are expected to see their populations decline by 50% before the end of the century. This population decline could negatively impact global growth and destabilize economies, making them more dependent on a smaller workforce to support social, health and pension systems, as well as national security needs and national productivity levels.
But expanding access to IVF and other techniques would give more families the opportunity to grow. Egg freezing is a good example where only a small percentage of younger women have access to this technology (and in some countries only for medical reasons). Around the world, the cost of fertility procedures often falls 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 for more successful, less time-consuming and less invasive fertility treatments, diagnostics and devices so that families and countries can benefit from fertility treatments at scale.
Harnessing innovation as part of the just response to the maternal mortality crisis. The pandemic has slowed progress in women’s health, but even before the pandemic, the world was not on track UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on maternal mortality. In Europe and North America, for example, the maternal mortality rate increased by 17% between 2016 and 2020and rates stagnated in many other regions.
New legislative initiatives of Congress and the White House means the ongoing maternal health crisis is finally getting attention in the United States. New treatments and devices may help boost response and potentially reduce some causes of maternal morbidity and mortality, including preterm birth, postpartum bleeding 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 because of the disproportionate impact of maternal morbidity and mortality on those groups.
I find myself needing a rich ecosystem of innovation and support to create the answer these societal challenges demand. Global action is needed, but the private sector can play an important role. The business and financial community have the opportunity to support innovations in women’s health by donating research funds to institutions and providing venture capital to start-ups working to solve critical challenges.
Employers can also play a role. They must review their benefits regularly to access new health care options on the market, such as reimbursing women for fertility treatments, providing menopausal benefits and offering paid family time off. Now is the right time as companies have new memories of the life-changing impact of employee benefits during the pandemic. Those benefits can be expanded to help women return to the labor market at pre-pandemic levels, creating not only a more loyal and resilient workforce, but also a healthier world.
I believe we are at a critical time today, and there is an urgent need to act now to make the progress the world needs. On International Women’s Day, let’s remind ourselves that this is a time for all critical stakeholders to invest and scale up health solutions so that we can look back over the coming years and decades and see the substantial progress we’ve made in solving these social problems.