The tightrope to quality healthcare for women

Despite progress in various areas, women's health issues continue to be neglected


India’s G20 presidency is gaining global traction for leading the world to a path of One Earth-One Family-One Future. Sustainability, finance, infrastructure, technology transformation and health are the sectors which are being deliberated upon by world leaders throughout the year. While women entrepreneurship is one of the focus areas of G20 for socio-economic progress, are we really on track when it comes to gender equality in healthcare reforms. 

As we race into another decade, medicine and healthcare have seen unprecedented advancements in a very short window of time. With increasing awareness and technological developments, video consultations seamlessly integrating with mobile applications, digital prescriptions, e-pharmacies, we have successfully made healthcare more affordable and accessible across the country. Research and science have progressed with genomics and preventive screening solutions helping us become better equipped to manage our health and ensure timely medical intervention. But in all of this, are the women of this world equal beneficiaries? 

Much as we might hope the answer is in the affirmative, it seems the answer may not be that easy. 

Women’s Health Issues: Still Suffering from Neglect

Here are some numbers that can put things in perspective:

· There was 1 maternal death about every two minutes in 2020; 95% of which occurring in low and lower middle-income countries

· Cancer strikes more women than men in India, bucking the global trend of men being more prone

· Only 4% of global biopharma R&D spending is directed to female-centric healthcare products & services

So, what are we missing?

The Tightrope to Quality Healthcare

Think of our lives as a valley one needs to traverse using a bridge set between two cliffs. Some women walk a tightrope teetering on the edge of endless health issues with the risk of falling into a deep spiral both health wise and financially because of missing out on important health checks, preventive screening, and diagnostics. The men, as primary income earners in many family units, are encouraged both at work and home to get their check-ups and treatment with less concern around expenditure on their medical bills. As a result, despite having the same solutions in the market, what the average woman can access is starkly different from the average male experience. Here’s why.

Investing in Women’s Health - What’s Going Wrong?

To compound the problem, in rural India, there are issues with access, acceptability of visitng doctors, challenges with affordability, and a lack of awareness and education that stacks the odds against women. 

Even in urban areas, there’s a reliance on the spouse/parent’s health insurance policy (as an add-on/family member) as opposed to one designed for women’s needs with greater coverage for her alone. With just 24% workforce participation for women in India, that leaves the bulk of the nation’s women in this dependent category. Even for those working, not all are employed with larger organizations that offer robust healthcare plans.

Women often don’t invest the time for annual health checks and screening until a problem that can’t be ignored crops up (often too late for successful treatment in some cases). This could be for various reasons - the pressure of managing work and home not allowing for this time, fear of a bad report which could snowball into bigger medical bills and stress for the family, or simply putting oneself last while ensuring the man of the house and the kids and parents get their health in order.

The last and more worrying concern even among those with access and financial ability, is fear that their screening and checks may lead to discovery of a health problem that will set them back at work. As a women’s health journal in the UK discovered, 57% of respondents felt that having a gynae/hormonal health issue has had an adverse effect on their career.

The March for Health Equity for Women

To make healthcare accessible and create a safety net or more stable way for women to traverse the medical system, we need to help overcome concerns and bridge gaps of knowledge through education and awareness building. 

Accessibility issues are being tackled with new technology - the government has eased regulations to make telemedicine more accessible. The integration of digital technology and AI advancements can be a game changer for the rural India. Automating the interpretation of test data through algorithms and devices allows for remote data transfer to qualified doctors and pathology professionals. This addresses the shortage of trained personnel in rural areas and enhances accessibility and ease of use.

Advancements in the genetic diagnostic industry in general hold a lot of promise and these tests are performed once in a lifetime. With a ringside view of this development that’s sweeping the industry, we see that the power of knowledge can transform health outcomes. For instance, when a woman gets a one-time screening for the breast cancer gene or for her genetic risk of developing coronary artery disease or an expectant mother takes a pre-natal screening test she can take charge of her health and follow up with screenings or treatment well in time to improve the odds of successful treatment. There are now screenings available for every life stage of a woman.

If preventive screening and genetic diagnostics are brought under the purview of insurance schemes, government-run maternity schemes, or included as part of company wellness initiatives in India, we have the chance to bridge that gap, and firm up the unsteady ground the women of this country are walking on.

We need to take the technology that’s at our fingertips and make it accessible to women as much as men, those in rural areas as well as those in urban areas - with no woman left behind. 


Dr. Vedam Ramprasad is the CEO (India) of MedGenome

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of THE WEEK.