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The UAE's female health focus: frameworks, femtech, and prospects

Article-The UAE's female health focus: frameworks, femtech, and prospects

CanvaPro International Women's Day
With a growing focus on women's health and technology, the UAE is primed to be the region's femtech capital.

As we mark International Women's Day, we see that the healthcare gap affecting roughly half of the world's population demands immediate attention. On average, it takes four times longer to diagnose a female patient with the same chronic conditions as a man. Additionally, women have historically been excluded from clinical trials until as recently as 1994, and today they are 50 to 75 per cent more likely than men to suffer adverse reactions to medicines. As a result, the women’s health gap translates to the loss of 75 million years of life annually due to poor health or premature death. Allocating investments to bridge the women's health gap can add US$1 trillion annually to the global economy by 2040. But this pervasive global issue requires collaborative efforts from policymakers, healthcare providers, large innovators, and scrappy start-ups alike.

In the UAE, the rapidly growing subsect of women's health tech, or femtech, shows immense potential. The sector is projected to reach US$3.8 billion by 2031, boasting a growth rate of 15 per cent, priming the UAE as a frontrunner in women's health technology. However, despite its considerable promise, less than one per cent of total start-up funding in the MENA region is allocated to women-founded start-ups, underscoring the urgent necessity for increased investment in femtech.

Related: Unlocking the full potential of FemTech in addressing women’s health needs

"Over the past few years, we have witnessed a steep rise in femtech solutions due to the adoption of new technologies and new business models, transforming the way women access healthcare," says Kate Batz, Director of Market Insights firm FemTech Analytics.

“A third of MENA’s femtech companies are based in the UAE, where innovation, women empowerment, and gender equality are matters of national priority. Countries like the UAE are leading the way and gradually breaking down taboos surrounding female health thanks to a culture of openness, high levels of health awareness, and the tech savviness of the government, the private sector, and civil society. As a result, society at large is becoming more and more receptive to engaging in conversations about such topics and embracing positive change in support of the sector,” Batz adds.

The UAE's commitment to enhancing women's health extends to strategic investments in healthcare infrastructure and innovative solutions. The government's dedication to the sector is evident, with public spending accounting for over two-thirds of the total healthcare expenditure. Initiatives like the establishment of a medical city in Abu Dhabi dedicated to women’s and children's health further underscore the government's commitment and present significant investment potential. The medical city is also expected to provide specialised care and attract medical tourism to the region.

At the same time, robust efforts are underway in the country to reduce the female mortality rate, as outlined in the National Policy for Improving Women’s Health. This policy sets ambitious targets, aiming to lower the overall mortality rate for women to 62.77 per 100,000 and decrease the cancer mortality rate to 23.24 per 100,000 women in the country. Breast cancer, accounting for 37 per cent of all cancers among women in the UAE, remains a significant concern. Globally, breast cancer is the most prevalent cancer among women, with a one in eight chance of diagnosis during a woman's lifetime. The UAE has initiated awareness campaigns, early detection initiatives, and access to advanced medical treatments, including screening programs and mammography to address this.

In addition to addressing specific diseases, the UAE is targeting lifestyle-related concerns among women, such as obesity and sedentary lifestyles. These factors contribute to various health issues, including diabetes, polycystic ovarian syndrome, infertility, and menstrual irregularities.

These government health commitments lay the groundwork for private-sector innovation. Earlier this year, global women's health company Organon partnered with Flat6Labs, a MENA-focused seed and early-stage venture capital firm, to launch the second cycle of a women's health accelerator program. This initiative is designed to finance and guide digital health start-ups in developing solutions to improve women’s health across the Middle East, North Africa, and Turkey (MENAT) region. The second cycle will concentrate on nurturing 15 promising start-ups focusing on three critical sectors vital to women's health: family planning, fertility planning, and women's wellness.

“Investing in women’s health shows a positive return on investment (ROI)," says Ramy Koussa, Associate Vice President of Organon MENAT. "For every US$1 invested, around US$3 is projected in economic growth. Investing in improving women’s health not only improves women’s quality of life but also enables them to participate more actively in the workforce and make a living. The potential value created through women’s higher economic participation and productivity exceeds the costs of implementation."

At the root of strengthening women's health lies the empowerment of female entrepreneurs dedicated to addressing these issues on a global scale. “This initiative is not just about innovation; it's about empowering visionary minds to create lasting impact [to build] a dynamic ecosystem for women-led start-ups," says Yehia Houry, Chief Programs Officer at Flat6Labs.

For instance, the female founders spearheading some of the UAE's leading femtech firms identify market gaps in women's health that larger companies may overlook. By combining digital and traditional healthcare services, one such company, Nabta Health, is focused on delivering personalised, holistic healthcare for women across various life stages in the region. To turbocharge growth, the femtech and women's healthcare firm raised US$1.5 million in a 2022 seed round investment.

Related: Diversity will lead the way to success in HealthTech

Recognising the transformative impact of continuous midwifery care, Nabta inaugurated a midwifery-led clinic in Dubai last November, providing customised, holistic, and evidence-based care from pregnancy to postnatal stages, complementing OB-GYN care. Studies have shown that midwife-led continuity models significantly reduce the risk of preterm birth by 24 per cent, foetal loss before and after 24 weeks by 16 per cent, and lower overall neonatal deaths, offering a more positive care experience for women at low and mixed risk of complications compared to other care models.

"Women's health is an asset that empowers not just individuals but entire communities and economies," says Sophie Smith, Founder of Nabta Health. "All women should take control of their health, ensuring they can lead healthier, more productive lives — not just in a particular month or on a particular day each year, but all year round."

Smith further emphasises that while traditional healthcare primarily focuses on acute diseases, Nabta's hybrid healthcare approach focuses on the swift and accurate diagnosis of chronic diseases. The company's machine learning algorithms are meticulously trained using data sourced from women in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, ensuring tailored care options and delivery mechanisms that cater to the diverse needs of these regions, leaving no woman underserved. This aligns seamlessly with the UAE's healthcare policies, further strengthening the potential for multi-stakeholder support.

By focusing on preventative care, education, and access to healthcare services, the UAE is working towards improving the overall well-being of women in the country. As the UAE continues to prioritise women's health and well-being, a mix of public policy and private sector innovation is driving growth, encouraging innovation, and creating a positive impact across the healthcare ecosystem.

References available on request.

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