Consider the speculum. It’s hard to find a better symbol for how medicine regards female patients: with a cold, metal instrument that dates back to the 1840s. And while doctors use it to inspect vaginas in 60 million pelvic exams every year across the U.S. alone, only a few companies have tried — unsuccessfully, so far — to redesign the instrument.
“This is a good example of the lack of innovation [in women’s health care] because there’s such good technology out there and yet the speculum hasn’t been redesigned for 200 years,” says Trish Costello, a Silicon Valley-based investor. “Any woman who’s ever had their annual exam knows how uncomfortable it is and knows that it could very easily be improved. There just hasn’t been the interest or the funding to do it and successfully go to market.”
The speculum is a visible symbol of a deep institutional problem with medical science — that it has been dominated by, and developed for, men. If you’re a woman in the U.S., studies suggest that you’re less likely to receive life-saving treatment if you have a blood clot and that it could take you longer to be referred for an EKG after heart failure, because doctors are less likely to recognize symptoms of heart disease for women, which differ slightly from men’s. Scientists have traditionally regarded men as the default patient. Before the early 1990s, it was normal for medical trials to use only male participants, with scientists largely assuming that all genders experienced the same symptoms and would respond in the same way to treatments. Not until 1993 were clinical trials required by law to include women in the U.S. Even the mice used in drug tests are usually male.
The speculum is a visible symbol of a deep institutional problem with medical science — that it has been dominated by, and developed for, men.
“This created a huge gap in knowledge about women’s health and the ways in which women’s biology and health needs differ from men’s,” says Amy Miller, president and CEO of…