What promise do data and Femtech hold for female health?
by Ida Tin, Co-Founder and CEO of Clue
It’s been five years since we founded Clue. I think it’s a good moment to pause and discuss again what role data is playing for users and Clue, and what promise it holds — and also to fully acknowledge the responsibility that comes with being the safekeepers of so much intimate data.
Since we started Clue, millions of people have tapped their screens over a billion times to document what their bodies are telling them. Data about bleeding, of course — Do I have too much blood? Why is my period like this? Is my period late? — but also data about sex, pain, happiness, and many other aspects about our bodies. Data that tells us about female health and about our lives.
As technology advances, it shapes and forms our lives. Before agriculture, before engines, before antibiotics, before the internet, we had a different way of life. Now technology is changing our world again in a profound way. And it’s related to data. Life is being translated into data points, so that machines can help us make sense of things we didn’t have a chance to understand before. Machines have the potential to suggest actions to take, based on processing amounts of data that no single brain has neither access to nor the ability to process.
Clue is an example of this. The app gives the ability to understand what is going on inside of our bodies and minds based on our individual and collective data, powered by data processing.
We are used to, and even take for granted, this kind of overview in other areas of our lives.
Algorithms processing our data are everywhere: from recommendations of movies on Netflix, to understanding how viruses spread, to the fight against trolls at Twitter, or doctors deciding on treatments. We are already living in a world where machines help us navigate life, though this technology is still in its infancy.
A female health graph
I believe that the world needs and deserves something like a female health graph, so that we can live our lives as we desire, not in spite of our biology, but in sync with it.
So think of Clue as your personal health record, made supercharged by data. It’s a place where I, as a person with female biology, can go to get an overview of my health. Is my cycle normal? What days will I experience mood swings, tender breasts, hormone-related headaches? How many more years can I expect to be able to become pregnant? What’s the risk of a pregnancy today if I skipped a pill yesterday?
I call such an overview a female health graph. The list of questions is never-ending, as our bodies change through life, pregnancies, conditions, menopause and so on. We can find answers to these important questions, but only if we collect data and know how to process it.
Imagine if tracking your health over years created a picture for you that not only helped you understand your body better, but also could be used to detect early warning signs of health conditions. If you could know about cancers that are currently being detected so late that treatment is difficult. Or if you could be diagnosed early with a condition like endometriosis (1 out of 10 women suffer from it), which is often either misdiagnosed or diagnosed too late.
Would it be helpful if you could know a few years in advance when your fertile years are coming to an end, so you could plan your life accordingly if you want to have children? Or what if your data could help you understand that you are perfectly healthy, even if your periods are irregular? Maybe knowing which days you will be at your physical and emotional peak performance would be nice?
It’s still early when it comes to showing that we can really do these things. No one has ever had those kind of massive datasets that we could learn from, and it’s unreasonable to expect individual people to collect and analyze data in a way that it can be truly helpful for them or their health providers. Our data processing skills are not quite there yet — but they soon will be, and when they are, it will dramatically change the way we understand and navigate our health.
By collecting data, we are building up a resource. With this resource, you can let people or organizations you trust derive insights that could greatly improve your quality of life and lead to better health outcomes. Maybe even save your life. The people and organizations who have longitudinal data will benefit. The ones who have a treasure trove of years of tracking will have an asset that no money can buy.
It’s an entirely new situation. We have never been able to collect our own health data like this before, with the help of apps, wearables and many other sensors. We can start making the much needed shift from treatment to prevention. We can do precision prevention.
A question of trust
So technology is already changing our lives and our health outcomes, with the potential to do so in an even more profound way. Now the question is, who do you trust with your data, what algorithms do you want to rely on, and what level of transparency do you demand as a user? I believe all these questions are key for all of us to think about. Who do you trust?
As a founder, I feel incredibly responsible to make sure that when you give data to Clue, it benefits YOU. Technology must never be a purpose in itself, nor should gathering data be only about economic gain. Making money is a means to an end — just like collecting data is. Underlying this is a trusted and transparent exchange. You provide data (and possibly pay for us to make sense of it, as I wrote about in this piece on making Clue a sustainable business), and Clue gives you insight into your body in a way that’s valuable for you. As a company being trusted with data, we must never forget that social contract between you as a user and us as a company that is based on trust.
What the world deserves
I do believe that we will not only want technology to give insights like these. I think we will demand them. We are fast getting used to technology giving us recommendations, warnings, suggestions, and visual representations of data that allows us to process complex connections and make hard choices. Of course we will want this in health, too. If my phone could know and alert me that something is off which could help me achieve a better quality of life — wouldn’t I want it to do so? Even expect it?
I believe that the world needs and deserves something like a female health graph, so that we can live our lives as we desire, not in spite of our biology, but in sync with it. We have what it takes to make data work for us: smartphones, connectivity, and the skills to make sense of the data.
If you have any thoughts, I would love to hear them. You can reach me on Twitter @idatin.