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Making women visible in digital health

Making women visible in digital health May 4, 2016Leave a comment

Diversity articles frequently start with a statistic, such as the NHS is 77 per cent female; a figure which largely undermines my cause of promoting women in healthcare.

As managing director for HealthTech Women UK, the British branch of an international professional network, we aim to support women to become the future leaders in medical innovation. Yet off the back of this NHS statistic, HealthTech Women UK may seem superfluous to requirements.

Last month The Lancet, one of the most prestigious medical journals, published a review of the evidence on why women accept or reject careers in academic medicine. Unsurprisingly, many of the themes in the paper echoed well-documented challenges for professional women. This included the fact that unless women had exposure to hands-on, practical research in the presence of an appropriate role model, they were unlikely to pursue a career in academic medicine.

Research from Nottingham in 2013 surveyed newly qualified doctors in the UK and found that surgery was still seen as a “hostile” environment to work in for women (68 per cent of women interviewed felt surgery was not a welcoming environment). This may be a contributing factor as to why women make up only 11 per cent of surgeons in the UK.

But even in the healthcare industry, the statistics are not favourable. While 73 per cent of medical and health service managers are women, only 4 per cent of healthcare industry’s CEOs are female. Furthermore, female managers tend to cluster around certain roles, such as marketing and human resources, and not engineering, operations or the top-dog positions.

You can understand my disappointment then when at eHealth week, one of the biggest events in the UK digital health calendar, a few senior men questioned the need for HeathTech Women’s existence as they saw no problem to address.

Healthcare is many years ahead of other industries in achieving gender balance, but despite starting from a more favourable position than technology, women are neither rising to senior positions nor taking up technical roles.

Where does the tech in HealthTech Women come in? The state of health, and health of states, is dire. Our healthcare costs are growing exponentially with an ageing population, chronic diseases and a creaking NHS, while governments are being put under increasing pressure to cut costs. Where does the future of cost-effective medicine lie? In the 4Ps: predictive, preventative, personalised and participatory medicine.

Healthcare is in the midst of a major paradigm shift. Like most industries, technology has shaken the foundations of the sector, and paved a road to new models and structures – ASOS in retail and AirBnB in travel, to take two examples. Digital health is no different, and will be the medium through which healthcare will experience this quantum leap.

So how can we achieve the esoteric 4Ps goal? We need highly complex and effective predictive analytics, led by the best data scientists. We need the best computational pharmacologists, geneticists and software engineers to drive our understanding of personalisation. We need those at the senior level to take the risk in driving new models of healthcare delivery. Women do not occupy these roles.

And what about ‘participatory’? Though in this case, participatory usually refers to active involvement and engagement of patients, what about the participation of the designers, scientists, engineers and technologists of future innovations?

Representative participation in the creation of technologies is crucial (a recent study of Siri and other virtual assistants demonstrates what happens when this goes wrong). But more pertinent to health, frontline staff (i.e. patient-facing clinicians) are in the best position to identify problems to solve. With over 50 per cent of women on the frontline, why are innovative solutions not 50 per cent female-founded?

HealthTech Women believes in the importance of role models. We get women up on stage at major conferences, provide them with free or subsidised access to executive events and, soon to be launched, we will help mentor women rising in their career.

Though presently we are predominantly events-based, we are building different arms around legal advice, blogging and consulting, to name but a few. Our network has grown exponentially in its nearly six months of British existence, which is such a joy to see, and I have my co-director Louise Sinclair to thank for this.

Our biggest challenge is the divisiveness of the issue. Having ‘women’ in our name can often deter men, and sometimes women, from even enquiring about the network. Though our speakers are predominantly female, our events attendees are always mixed. We are content-driven and focused on educating the community about the latest in health technology. We do not come together to complain about how hard life is as a woman in digital health.

So you want to know where that 77 per cent NHS statistic gets skewed? 81 per cent of administrative staff are female; the backbone of the NHS, without whom we would not survive. Yet they are not the leaders, innovators and medical pioneers of our future healthcare. Statistics can be powerful, but they don’t always paint the most accurate picture of what is really going on.

Digital health is the future of healthcare, and more women need to be part of driving that shift forward.


About the author

author_template - Maxine McKintosh

Maxine McKintosh

Maxine McKintosh is the managing director of HealthTech Women UK, an international professional network aimed at supporting and promoting women to be the future leaders in medical innovation. She does this alongside a PhD at UCL in neuroinformatics, at the intersection of data science and dementia. Maxine has also completed an MSc in Health Policy and Economics at the LSE and London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. Her professional work has led her to the Royal Society, Roche, L’Oreal and the Digital Health Forum, as well as governmental organisations such as the Department for International Development and the NHS. Maxine is a digital health fanatic and continues to report and consult on medical innovation in the UK, central Europe and Silicon Valley.

Reach Maxine on Twitter: @Maxi_Macki and @htw_uk or visit the HealthTech Women UK website.

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