The Lancet World Report estimated that, as a result of the pandemic, roughly 26 million couples in India could be left without access to contraception, resulting in 2.3 million unintended pregnancies and over 800,000 unsafe abortions, which is already the third leading cause of maternal mortality in India. Moreover, a report by Marie Stopes International estimated a subsequent 2,600 maternal deaths in India. These worrying estimates highlight the significant burden and threat the pandemic poses to gains made to sexual and reproductive health over the decades. We must therefore work urgently towards empowering women and ensuring their health needs are addressed.
Sexual and reproductive health is a fundamental pillar of women’s rights. Over the course of their life, women have a multitude of health matters to contend with, including menstruation, fertility, contraception, pregnancy, cervical screening, chronic health conditions like endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome, as well as menopause. However, many of these remain ‘taboo’ topics, which contributes to low awareness, lack of effective solutions and consequent neglect of women’s health. The pandemic further exacerbated these pervasive challenges by creating an additional barrier to contraceptives, thus disproportionately impacting women. A multifaceted approach to healthcare is required to alleviate these challenges, which should encompass not only physical health, but also the right to safe healthcare services, access to reliable information, availability of contraception and family planning solutions, and the provision of timely support. Addressing all these aspects is vital to women’s general health and wellbeing.
Addressing the stigma
A roadmap for equitable healthcare services involves normalizing and promoting women’s health. We must choose to challenge stigma and low awareness surrounding women’s health. Education is a powerful tool that can encourage women to make informed decisions regarding contraceptives and family planning. These are vital to reducing unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.
In addition to raising awareness, such as through health campaigns, measures including regular check-ups, screenings and promotion of self-care all form essential components of a holistic approach to safeguarding women’s health.
Digital Innovation for women’s health
Technology-enabled innovations can scale the reach of effective health management solutions to previously underserved communities. By providing reliable health information and facilitating the monitoring of conditions, digital solutions can ensure women are equipped with the necessary information to make choices that promote better health. The Federation of Obstetric and Gynaecological Societies of India (FOGSI) and Bayer, for instance, collaborated to drive increased adoption of chatbot service, ‘Ask Tanu.’ This chatbot provides evidence-based information and advice on contraception and reproductive health. Such safe, private and tailored platforms can guide women to make informed decisions about their health. Given current challenges for in-person consultations, these tools can fill knowledge gaps while supporting women in prioritizing their contraception and family planning needs, all while reducing the burden on the healthcare system.
Digital tools can also be helpful for monitoring specific disease conditions. For instance, ‘Bare Your Pain,’ supports women in managing endometriosis and associated pain, which is a chronic disease affecting 26 million women in India alone. The app empowers women with information to better manage their condition at home while also monitoring progression. Such solutions enable meaningful discussions with healthcare practitioners about the condition, thus supporting better outcomes.
Digital innovations have numerous other benefits. Digitization of health records, for instance, can ensure that in addition to day-to-day monitoring, patient records are captured in an easily accessible, interoperable format. In this way, patients can easily share vital health information with healthcare providers, which can enable diagnosis and treatment that fully reflects individual health history and trends over time. Moreover, healthcare researchers may be able to unearth insights or patterns relating to the underlying disease condition at the population level, to design better treatment interventions. This can facilitate more holistic and targeted disease management and improve adherence to treatment.
It is time to renew our commitments to support women in better managing their health and well-being, while reducing the burden on healthcare systems.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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