My initial thoughts as I stepped into the new venue for this year’s Wired Health conference were about the women of science and medicine, whose contributions have largely been rendered invisible. While past conferences took place at the Royal College of General Practitioners in London, this year’s event was held at the newly opened Francis Crick Institute.
Francis Crick is half of the duo credited with the discovery of the structure of DNA, along with his colleague, James Watson. They, together with Maurice Wilkins, won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1962 for their discovery.
But every time the names Crick and Watson make their way into my consciousness, I think about Rosalind Franklin — the woman whose work with X-ray diffraction was a pivotal contribution to their discovery.
As with many women working in science and medicine in the past, her contributions went largely unrecognized and she remained in the shadows.
Upon stepping into the foyer of the impressive Crick building, I mentioned this Rosalind Franklin factoid to my colleague. Little did I know that the space of women in health — and, indeed, the topic of women’s health — would be a recurring theme throughout my day.
“Being a woman is never dull,” said Elvie co-founder and CEO Tania Boler as she took the main stage.
She noted that, when it comes to women’s health, technology has fallen behind. And she should know. After completing her Ph.D. in women’s health, she held several leadership positions — some in research and innovation — and she has published books, advised on women’s health issues, and published research studies on the topic.
Interestingly, it wasn’t until she got pregnant that she realized that there were so many things about women’s health that even she didn’t know. While 30 years ago breast cancer was stigmatized and women didn’t feel comfortable talking about their breasts in the open, Boler explains that this is what’s currently happening with the vagina.
“Now, menstruation, vaginal atrophy, pelvic floor prolapse are the stigmas,” she noted, adding that she learned more about the pelvic floor from pilates class than from her doctor.
But pelvic floor disorders are quite common, with
Boler says that the gap in knowledge and understanding is due to a gap in technology. How to get women to make the mind-body connection when it comes to their pelvic floor is the challenge that she and her colleagues wanted to take on.
This is where their creation, the Elvie Kegel trainer, comes in. The trainer has two sensors inside: an accelerometer to show women if they’re exercising correctly, and a sensor to provide feedback on the mind-body connection.
And, as with any successful behavior-changing technology, they have found a way to gamify it.
Their piece of tech has picked up momentum in the past couple of years. More than 1,000 health professionals are promoting it, and they now have a British National Health Service (NHS) supply agreement, so women in the U.K. can access it for free through their GP.
Elvie has even landed in Hollywood; the device was part of the Oscars goodie bags last year.
Boler credits our current place in history with the uptake and visibility of Elvie. “For big change to happen, you need the stars to align, and that’s what’s happening now,” she said.
The rise of so-called Femtech is part of three larger movements currently going on, according to Boler: the feminist surge (as well as the #metoo movement); the huge technological revolution that’s yielding instant personal data; and the paradigm shift in health, in which the patient/doctor paradigm is giving way to individual control of our own health.
However, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Boler noted that the tech community took a bit longer to embrace what Elvie was trying to accomplish. She added, however, that “change is happening at a faster pace; it’s becoming more of a no-brainer to investors that women’s health is a big opportunity.”
She concluded by noting that “change is happening on the edges, in start-ups.” Given that she and her colleagues were at the other side of the Wired Health conference in the smaller start-up area just a few years ago, her assertion is accurate.
A few speakers after Tania Boler, the CEO of a biosciences company took the main stage to talk about the gut-body connection and using microbes in order to fight disease. It was a fascinating session that started with the CEO putting up a photo of Crick and Watson and talking about how their discovery influenced him personally.
I thought to myself that perhaps this was the moment in the conference that Rosalind Franklin would be mentioned and would step out of the shadows of history.
Alas, no. A new slide came up and and the speaker moved on without any mention of her.
I caught up with my colleague in the lunch line and talked about my frustration over the lack of recognition for women in science and health, whose achievements are still not acknowledged.
Ada Lovelace, whose bright ideas about computing and early “computer programs” contributed to potential uses of Charles Babbage’s concept of a programmable computer, was one such woman whose brilliance was completely overlooked until nearly a century later.
“I’m tired of the lack of visibility about women like Rosalind Franklin and Ada Lovelace,” I exclaimed to my colleague.
And then, Ada appeared.
During the after-lunch session on the main stage, Dr. Claire Novorol took the stage. She worked as a pediatrician in London before specializing in clinical genetics, but now she’s the chief medical officer for Ada, the company behind the app of the same name.
Ada is a personalized artificial intelligence (AI) doctor, who works via an app on your phone. Users can have a conversation with Ada, which provides information about what might be going on.
Dr. Novorol pointed out that 4 billion people across the world lack access to basic health services. In China and India, doctors are only able to spend an average of 2 minutes per patient in hospitals. And here in the U.K., the NHS is also very strained.
With a shortage of doctors around the world — and with this gap growing — Dr. Novorol and her colleagues saw a role for tech and AI to tackle this problem.
Ada is designed by doctors, for both doctors and patients. It works in the same way as a chatbot but is personalized for each patient. They will receive an initial diagnosis and can then take their Ada report to their GP.
“We’re not trying to replace doctors, but often Ada is supporting consultations and helping people to spot what’s going on when the doctor might miss it. Doctors can’t know everything.”
Dr. Claire Novorol
Currently, Ada has 2 million users and there have been 3 million assessments performed on the app to date. While it’s still early days, the app is growing quickly.
Dr. Novorol noted that they are starting to hone the personalization that Ada can perform, using data from wider sources and tracking people’s symptoms over time. The company is also now connecting people with a wide range of next steps, helping patients to navigate their journey.
What is more, Ada has a voice. The app can talk through Alexa, thereby giving users the sense of connection that tech often lacks.
For me, hearing, “Hi, I’m Ada,” was a reminder that Ada Lovelace’s computing legacy does live on.
There is certainly still a long way to go when it comes to the role of technology in healthcare. Each year that I attend the Wired Health conference, however, I see exciting new solutions for the health problems that we face universally.
In the same way, there is still a lot of room for improvement in women’s health and in the space for women in medicine, but it’s moving in the right direction.
Given that this conference took place just days after International Women’s Day, I was heartened to see women’s health take a major place on the main stage.