Digital Health Champions: How To Tackle The Female Health Stigmata
Female sexual and reproductive health is still stigmatized. Especially young girls often hesitate to ask questions because the topic seems ‘shameful’. To go to the very root of the problem, Hajnalka Hejja founded Medilad and developed the chatbot Izzy. Izzy offers options for symptom tracking and answers questions. With a special approach, the goal is to overcome the stigma surrounding reproductive health.
Thank you for sharing some insights about Medilad. In a nutshell: what do you do and what problem does this address?
What we are doing is a female health and reproductive health chatbot that is called Izzy. Izzy is running on facebook messenger and is like a companion to women.
We realized there is a psychological stigma around sexual and reproductive health. Our idea is that you can take the human element out of this conversation and automate it. With this, you can ease the frustration of women and ease the taboos with a chatbot.
How did you come up with the idea for Izzy? What is the story behind it?
First of all, I have a medical background, I’m a medical doctor. And during my medical studies, I was doing enlightenment lessons in elementary and grammar schools. I have been talking a lot about periods, menstrual health, contraception, sexually transmittable diseases, how you can get pregnant and how you cannot get pregnant.
I stood in front of dozens of students and noticed they were afraid to ask questions, even though I was quite close to them in age. It was still very hard to make them talk. I realised that it is not just the age or the relationship that is the reason for that, but it is what we think is shameful, what we think is embarrassing and this is why I started to work on this later on.
Did your training as a medical doctor prepare you for the impact digital technologies have on healthcare now?
I finished my studies in 2012 and at that time we started to talk about mobile apps. At the time, Bertalan Mesko (The Medical Futurist℠) was becoming quite popular because he was trying to integrate lessons on the digitalization of healthcare into medical studies. However, it still is not popular enough. It is done only in a few universities around the world. There are some online courses students can take but I think it really needs more preparation.
The most important reason for that, in my opinion, is that medicine how we practised it in the past is over – and it is not coming back ever again. Medical professionals are not yet prepared for digitally educated patients, patients that feel responsible for themselves and patients who want to take care of themselves.
Female health is still often stigmatized. Is that why you tackle the issue with humour?
Yes, because you can see it working.
First of all, everyone likes to have fun. And a lot of times when we deal with stigmatized topics they are tackled with humour. There are a couple of great examples. One of my favourites is from Thailand. There are large-scale campaigns for using condoms. This greatly reduced the spreading of HIV in the 90s because they were great campaigns. It looks like it is working also in our case.
On digital health in general
How do you judge the potential of bots in healthcare? Are they just for stigmatized topics or do you think there is a broader perspective where they can be of use?
I think it is much broader than the niche that we chose.
I expect it to be particularly good as a medication reminder, or for first-line assessment – and some companies are already working on this issue of being able to assess medical problems when they occur. For example, Ada Health, Your.MD or Babylon Health do a really good job in this.
How do you perceive the current situation of healthcare and digital health? Is it developing fast enough or are there certain obstacles we need to overcome in the next few years?
It depends on where we are talking about.
For example, the US has a really different healthcare system and consumers need to pay a lot more for their health services. They are eager to try out new services that might save them some money. So that’s a completely different situation. Also, the UK. The NHS is so overburdened that they try to implement as many digital tools as possible to ease the burden. So, it really depends on the healthcare system. Germany is very traditional in terms of digitalization, not only in healthcare but in most aspects. Germany is moving forward. I think it is safe to say that it is a bit slower than in the US.
What do you see as short-term and longer-term opportunities of digital health and bots that we can look forward to?
I think diagnostics will change fundamentally. The next step will be customer care. Bots will probably replace call centres and will be able to assess patients. Also making appointments online – this will be out pretty soon on a grand scale.
On career possibilities in digital health
How do you judge the overall career opportunities in the digital health sector?
I think they are generally good.
In this sector, medicine, technology, consumer goods overlap – depending on the company of course. Actually, if you have really good knowledge of a certain domain, e.g. consumer marketing, medicine or even a background in research, you have a lot of possibilities. But you must expect to continuously learn because most of these jobs will overlap with another area. For example, marketing will definitely overlap with product development, medicine will overlap with business. It will be more complex than just the one domain you studied. You will need to be able to learn fast.
What are your thoughts on women in tech? Do you see a development, that there are more and more women involved?
That’s a good question. First of all, technology and business is still dominated by men, especially in the DACH region. That is one thing that we can safely say to be true.
In Digital Health, I see more women than in MedTech. In medicine at universities it is quite equal, maybe even dominated by women and more and more women get involved with technology. In business, it is also getting better, but it is still really hard to find women who lead or are in managerial positions. I think one can see a positive development but there is still a lot to be done.
What skill sets are especially relevant? What should someone bring to the table trying to have an impact
Having a good attitude and being humble to work is very important. It is also very important to look at issues from different perspectives.
Nothing is ever black or white and you need to be able to understand that e.g. the job that you do today might not seem like a lot, but will be very important or very powerful later on. There are trends to show you in what direction things develop but you have to be very adaptable and be able to see everything you do from different perspectives.
Thank you very much for all these insights. Is there anything else you want to share with our readers?
Yes, I would suggest to everyone: simply get started. Your attitude towards work is very important and you will need to learn. The results you provide are powerful, not what you are promising.
Hajnalka, thank you very much for the interview!
About the interviewee
Hajnalka Hejja is a medical doctor who worked in research, drug safety for pharmaceuticals and in marketing.
She is the CEO of Smart Health UG, creating Izzy, a virtual health assistant that focuses on women’s health. Izzy is a chatbot initially for period and fertility tracking, that will also tackle down other taboos on reproductive health like contraception and sexually transmitted diseases.
Her responsibilities include growing and nurturing our digital health platforms and, occasionally, taking care of bus tickets for the team. In her free time, she can be found on horseback out in the woods.
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