British Columbia

Technology for women's health is booming. These doctors are using it to increase access to care

Consumer apps and technology focused on women's health have risen in popularity. But some physicians are taking this one step further by using digital tools and smartphones to link women with actual health care providers and officials. 

Technology focused on women's health has 'huge potential,' says WHO medical officer

Apps can increasingly help women track their pregnancy and sexual health. Some doctors want to take that further. (Shutterstock)

Dr. Roopan Gill studied for nearly a decade to become an obstetrician/gynecologist, but these days she's most excited about her budding role as a tech entrepreneur to help her female patients.

In 2017, Gill was working on a fellowship with UBC and B.C. Women's Hospital when she came up with the idea to develop digital follow-up emotional support for women who'd had a surgical abortion.

It was an area of her work that seemed lacking, digitally or not — especially for the women who had to travel from far away to access those services. 

As part of a study, the first phase of which will soon be published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, participants received scheduled emails with links to articles and information they might find useful following the procedure, as well as access to a website. 

"We were blown away at how much women actually loved it," Gill said.  

'Huge potential'

The study made Gill realize the potential for connecting women to health resources via technology like smartphones, notably for delicate issues like reproductive and sexual health. Those conversations can be awkward for doctors and patients alike

Gill was one of a handful of researchers at the Women's Health Research Symposium on Friday who spoke about digital tools. 

Consumer apps and technology focused on women's health — that track periods and fertility, for example —  have recently risen in popularity.

Dr. Roopan Gill is now a medical health officer at the WHO, but she used to be a fellow at the B.C. Women's Health Research Institute. (Roopan Gill)

But health experts like Gill are taking this one step further by using digital tools and mobile technology to link women with actual health care providers and officials. 

"There's definitely a lot of momentum right now in this space," Gill said over the phone from Geneva, where she now works as a medical officer for the World Health Organization. "There's just huge potential."

Tech gender gap

Gill says women's health needs have often been neglected because the medical field has long been dominated by men. But she says women are increasingly working in the health and research fields — and connecting with the growing number of their female peers in the tech sector. 

Other digital tools affiliated with the Women's Health Research Institute include Cervix Check, an at-home HPV self-collection test kit that could screen for cervical cancers, and Smart Mom, a free text messaging program for women in northern B.C. who aren't able to attend prenatal education classes.

Despite the potential of these types of technologies, some doctors warn that researchers and developers need to be mindful of who can and can't access technology — especially in developing countries or even remote parts of Canada.

Beth Payne, a postdoctoral fellow at UBC, is one of those urging caution. 

"We hear a lot about the hype around mobile phones and how they're going to revolutionize health-care delivery," Payne said.

"What we don't often talk about is the fact that there's a huge gender gap in mobile phone ownership and mobile internet access around the world that disproportionately affects women."

Other challenges for women include the cost of technology and literacy, she says.

Augmenting, but not replacing, care

Payne says that, globally, women are 10 per cent less likely to own a mobile phone and 26 per cent less likely to have one with internet access. While that doesn't make women's health tech a total write-off, Payne says, it's worth keeping those obstacles in mind. 

The work that Payne has done in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, connects digital health tools with community health workers and leaders who can pass that technology down in their villages and towns. 

Health researcher Dr. Beth Payne says women in some parts of the world are less likely to have access to a mobile phone, or have internet access. (Beth Payne)

And as enthusiastic as Gill is about digital tools, she too warns that they're not a panacea. At best, they can fill some gaps in women's health, she says, but medical authorities still need to do the heavy lifting. 

"It can help to augment care, but it's not in any way meant to replace care," Gill said. 

 

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

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