Women’s Health Lacks Data—Ava is Pioneering a Solution
We live in a world that is designed by and for men. Men’s bodies have long been considered the de facto standard, while women’s bodies are assumed to be just a smaller version.
Because of this, female anatomy has been left out of decisions with far-reaching effects. Women’s bodies have not been considered in topics as disparate as how sidewalks are designed or how medications are developed. From critical decisions about how consumer products are deemed safe to how our smartphones are built.
Our society collects a lot of data—but it is mostly data on men. This disparity, which has recently been dubbed the “gender data gap” has been getting a lot of attention lately. The topic has been covered in publications like Vox, The Guardian, and Scientific American, to name a few.
At first glance, it sounds like this gender data gap might just cause minor inconveniences: women’s hands are too small for their phones, their feet don’t reach the pedals in their cars. It’s unfortunate, perhaps, that Apple released a health app that allows users to track something as obscure as selenium intake but forgot to include any options for menstruation.
But when you take a closer look, it becomes clear that this gap is dangerous for women. Consider the fact that women are 17 percent more likely than men to die if they’re in a car crash. (And they’re 47 percent more likely to be seriously injured.) And when you narrow in to examine the gap in women’s health, specifically, it’s clear that women have long taken pills and undergone procedures that were tested on men, but may not be beneficial or even safe for women.
The menstrual cycle, in particular, is still largely a great unknown; We are only beginning to understand how it impacts physical and mental health. The hormonal and physical variations within the menstrual cycle are a few of the reasons why some medical researchers haven’t included women in clinical studies. According to Invisible Women, a new book written by the British journalist and feminist activist, Caroline Criado Perez, medical researchers say that the female body is “too hormonal and too complicated to measure.” And one shocking example of the dangers that this presents is detailed in Perez’s book: a medication that was meant to prevent heart attacks was actually found to be more likely to trigger a heart attack during a certain point in a woman’s menstrual cycle.
And this is why at Ava, we are so incredibly passionate about closing this gap. Ava’s vision as a company is that we become a long-term companion for women, giving them scientific and data-driven insights across all stages of their reproductive lives. We aim to do so through clinical research and artificial intelligence. And this month, we are proud to announce that our clinical study on the menstrual cycle was published in a peer-reviewed medical journal. Our study provides unprecedented insights into the physiological changes that occur during the different phases of the menstrual cycle.
According to the nonprofit, Women Deliver, “There is still a significant gender gap in health innovation. Some of the greatest challenges include limited gender-disaggregated data by disease leaving a dearth of information in the gender differences in diseases; a persistent gender gap in clinical studies – both in women participating in drug trials and in tracking the effect of certain drug innovations on women’s lives.”
Humboldt University in Berlin also looked specifically at the issue of women being excluded from clinical studies and found that many studies do not even report the gender of the trial sample. Among those that did indicate the gender, “19% of the studies had an underrepresentation of women in both intervention and control groups.”
Another point here: even when data is collected for both men and women, it’s often not disaggregated—meaning it’s not separated out into male versus female data and analyzed for differences.
Ava specializes in advancing the scientific understanding of women’s bodies and their health. We aim to understand the menstrual cycle in depth, not only so that we can develop products that will improve women’s’ lives, but also so that we can educate, empower, and arm women with critical information about their health.
What our clinical paper revealed is that temperature is not the only physiological signal that changes during the menstrual cycle. In fact, we see changes in five different signals throughout the cycle, and by tracking those signals simultaneously, we can detect when a woman is fertile in real time. For a long time, the menstrual cycle has been understood as having only one signal—temperature—that changes throughout. But now, for the first time, we show that additional signals, collected simultaneously, are useful in fertility tracking.
Why has it taken us so long to understand more about the other signals that also change along with temperature? The answer brings us back to that unquestioned assumption that has long persisted: the male body is the “base model” and the female body is a variant. But algorithms and technology can also deepen our understanding of women’s health and combat these biases. And at Ava, we aim to do just that. This study is a big step, but we are just scratching the surface on what we understand about women’s reproductive health.
We’re determined to keep researching women’s health, and refining our expertise on the menstrual cycle. We are committed to continuing our research and being transparent about what we find. And we’ll remain steadfast to this vision until we live in a world where data collection and the scientific understanding of human health mirrors the population: equal parts women and men.