Healthcare is failing women — but it doesn’t have to

Gina Nebesar, Chief Product Officer and co-founder of Ovia Health, recently posted this piece on LinkedIn about the stigma surrounding women’s health and what we can do to end it. Read it below!

At Ovia Health, it’s always been our mission to help women and families engage with their health. Back in 2012, we took the first step toward achieving that mission by releasing our first app: Ovia Fertility.

We weren’t the first period or fertility app on the market, so it would have been easy to make a list of the typical features, add them to our app, and call it a day. But we didn’t — we invested time to deeply understand our users and the problems they face today in women’s health. And what we discovered was that healthcare was failing women, on a micro and macro scale, every day. Women make 80% of healthcare decisions for themselves and their families, but 50% lack knowledge about their reproductive health.

Since that realization, we’ve spent every day trying to improve and enhance the relationships women and families have with the healthcare system. We do that through our three apps, through our maternity benefits solution for employers, and through the conversations we have with women and families every day. What problems are today’s families facing, and what can Ovia do to help?

It starts with our first period

Women’s health is still taboo. I think it starts as early as our first interaction with our reproductive health: our periods. Periods are beautiful — they’re the reason we’re all in this world! But for some reason, they’re often considered unclean or gross, something we don’t talk about.

I’ve interviewed hundreds of women about their health, and I often ask them about their first periods. One woman told me she got her period when she was 11 and remembers thinking, “Will my dad look at me differently?” Another told me she was 14 and taking a science exam. She wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom, was pressured into telling her teacher that she had her period, and was laughed at by her classmates for years.

Fast forward five years, and now she’s sexually active, still fearful of sharing this information with her peers or even her doctor. Ninety-nine percent of sexually active women have used birth control in their lives, but a third of them lack affordable access. Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) affects 1 in 10 women and is the leading cause of infertility, but it can go undiagnosed for decades, often due to women being dismissed in doctors’ offices or being too afraid to speak up.

Seeking out care

After struggling to talk about periods and sexual activity, what happens when a woman wants to start a family and is engaging with her reproductive health again, in a new way? Many women will tell you that fertility isn’t something they thought about in their earlier years (except in the context of avoiding pregnancy). Fertility isn’t something you think about until it’s the only thing you think about. When you decide you want to have a baby, it completely overwhelms you.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the same story: “I’m 30 years old, and my partner and I want to get pregnant. I went off birth control and realized I don’t know anything about my body. When do I ovulate? Why don’t I know this by now?”

In the U.S., it takes on average six months for couples to conceive, and as many as 1 in 6 couples have a hard time or struggle conceiving. Infertility affects 11% of women, yet 72% of women don’t see a healthcare provider when trying to conceive.

It doesn’t stop there. Just as we don’t talk about infertility, we also don’t open up about loss. It’s estimated that 1 in 4 pregnancies end in loss, but we only talk about the happy stories. The Instagram post of the ultrasound photo, the touching photo of the mom in the hospital with a newborn and toddler on her lap. No one is posting, “Just had my second miscarriage today.”

By talking about health issues that affect women — infertility, pregnancy loss, postpartum depression, PCOS, the list goes on — we can better support one another and put an end to the taboo.

Understanding women’s health

So, what did we do when we were building Ovia Fertility? We had these conversations. We interviewed hundreds of women about their experiences. We talked to the women in our lives, in our friends’ lives, in our friends of friends of friends’ lives. We went everywhere. I eventually put up ads on Craigslist to find pregnant women (which sounds creepy, but I promise it wasn’t!) and hear about their experiences.

These amazing women would come to our office to talk about their journeys to getting pregnant, their pregnancy health, and their parenting journeys. We learned that ultimately women wanted to feel and be in control of their health and that Ovia could serve a higher purpose and improve their lives.

Based on these interviews, we knew that our app needed to be designed like a friend. We chose the name Ovia because we thought it sounded like a woman’s name. We wanted the tone of the app to sound approachable, unbiased, and trustworthy — like you were being asked health questions by a friend, not filling out a stale form in your doctor’s office.

That’s one of my favorite things to hear from users: that Ovia is like a friend. I read it in app reviews, I jot it down doing user interviews, and it never fails to make me smile. A user told me once that Ovia was like her best friend. Ovia is the first thing she would check in the morning, she’d tell Ovia all about her day, and Ovia was the only one in her life that asked her how she’s feeling every single day.

That’s so important to me, and to all of us at Ovia Health. When I hear that, I know that Ovia is starting these conversations that are central to our mission. We were starting a dialogue about women’s health not just at a macro level, but at an individual level with every single person who uses our apps and answers the question: How are you feeling today? We’re starting a conversation around her health, a conversation she might not otherwise have had with her doctor, her partner, or even herself if not for Ovia.

Thank you for being part of this movement toward better health and better healthcare. I know that if we continue to speak up about our needs, our struggles, and our experiences, we can make a difference.