Conversations about health care in 2018 are — for many reasons — quite fraught. On an individual level, between the all-too-common struggles with insurance, far-off appointment dates, excessive wait times, lack of communication and clarity with various providers and access to medications (with fluctuating costs), there's no denying that there's a lot of work to be done to ensure people, and women especially, have access to the best care possible.
As health care becomes an even more rapidly expanding industry, a slew of companies in the tech space have sought to re-imagine the way patients access medical services — with an aim toward catering to millennial and Generation Z consumers, of course. But more than just providing Instagrammable vitamins and superfoods, there's also a relatively new wave of companies focusing on widening the reach, accessibility and effectiveness of telemedicine. Their aim is to disrupt the system as we know it and connect consumers with actual medical services, real doctors and prescriptions at inexpensive prices — without requiring patients to even to leave the house.
One brand leading the charge in the women's space comes from the same team that brought the world Hims, a direct-to-consumer health, grooming and wellness site for men, which provides basic skin care as well as solutions for medical concerns like hair loss and erectile disfunction. Thursday marks the official launch of its counterpart focusing on women's health, called, somewhat predictably, Hers.
"One interesting thing about the Hims team is that the majority of our executive and director level teams are women," says Hilary Coles, a founding Hims team member and the current brand lead of Hers. "As we were building this men's brand, it became pretty obvious that women didn't have access to the same streamlined approach to care. We believe women have a right to make informed decisions about their wellbeing and have easy access to products that are scientifically proven to work. It's something we've been working on for almost a year now, so we're excited to launch on the one-year anniversary of Hims."
With Hers, Coles — along with her team and the brand's network of more than 120 doctors — is hoping to offer women the same approachable, streamlined access to care that Hims has afforded to men around the country, providing both over-the-counter and prescription medications at up to 80 percent off traditional retail prices, ranging from $15 to $75. The initial focus will span three categories: sexual wellness, skin and hair.
"We really thought it was important to launch a parity product because women were facing a lot of the same issues, but they're more heavily stigmatized," says Cole. "Look at hair loss, for example: 40 percent of women experience hair loss or thinning before the age of 40, which is just crazy because nobody talks about it. And when we dive into those numbers further, 75 percent of women who had experienced hair loss or thinning were extremely distressed by that." Coles adds that a majority of the women in that particular study hadn't spoken to a doctor about it, despite the condition taking a significant toll on their lives.
The Hers product lineup includes a strengthening shampoo and conditioner, supplements to promote hair growth, stronger nails and skin health and Minoxidil treatment formulated for women. (The items in this category can all be purchased over-the-counter, without the need for corresponding with a doctor.)
For any products that do require a prescription — like the brand's birth control pills or medical-strength acne treatment (which relies on a combination of tretinoin, clindamycin and niacinamide) — a consultation with a doctor is mandatory, just as it would be through traditional avenues. But Hers has streamlined that process.
Users simply go to the brand's website and fill out a questionnaire, which is then submitted to one of the medical providers in the Hers network through its secure portal. "If appropriate, the doctor will prescribe you the related solution, and deliver it to you directly at your door," explains Coles.
"You know, you look at the time [it takes] to go find a dermatologist to get a referral, which is likely not covered, or has a really high copay," says Coles. "And then once you see a dermatologist and get access to these incredible products like retinol that work, you're out another $200. We thought was just unacceptable."
In the sexual wellness category, Hers connects women directly with doctors for consultation and advice, as well as offering access to generic forms of the birth control pill. Coles cites this offering as a big pillar for the brand, sharing the staggering statistic that more than 19 million women don't have access to a public health clinic in the United States. "It's everything from the time it takes, to the potential to have a biased or judgmental conversation, or taking time off work and like lack of transportation options," says Coles. "We wanted to offer more a efficient process to get those products into the hands of women who wanted them."
Hers is also the exclusive online wellness platform to provide Addyi, the only FDA-approved medication for hypoactive sexual desire disorder, which will also be available through the site, doled out on a prescription basis. "On the market today, there are 26 products available for men to increase their sex drive or essentially to get them hard. This is the first option out there for women," says Coles.
This particular product speaks to the company's commitment to meeting women where their health concerns are most often dismissed, discounted or are so stigmatized that they don't seek proper treatment, if any at all. After conducting a variety of focus groups and surveys, Hers found that one out of every 10 women is affected by low sex drive disorder.
"These women were told to take a bath or relax, and really it was a dysfunction disorder going on in their brain," explains Coles. "So we think it's really important to be offering a wide variety of products off the get-go, because it's an important time to be listening to women, to be providing the most reliable options for them, and then helping to guide them to the most efficient process for their solution or for their issues."
Listening to and providing more reliable options for women is also the mission of fellow telemedicine startup Binto, a Pennsylvania-based company founded by Suzie Welsh in 2016. The monthly subscription service aims to connect women with on-demand health professionals and personalized over-the-counter products — like prenatal vitamins, probiotics and organic feminine care products — addressing everything from period support and hormonal health to fertility and prenatal care and symptoms experienced during menopause.
When Welsh, whose background is as an IVF and fertility nurse, was working at a fertility clinic, she was given a firsthand look at just broken the United States healthcare system truly is, specifically for women.
"There was just a general lack of access to care," explains Welsh. "Most women are waiting well over six weeks, if not over three month, to get in to see an OBGYN, and it's just because we're seeing a lack of people specializing out of medical school as a national trend." Because of the severe lack of access, Welsh also noticed an accompanying wave of confusion for many women who weren't granted timely access to care for what most times would be a basic health question. "Women would turn to Google for everything," she says. Binto was conceived of as the accessbile alternative to that.
Personalization is a tentpole of Binto's business; the user process begins by completing a health survey, which kicks off by asking what they're looking for out of the service. From there, users choose from four categories, including help with period symptoms, support for trying to get pregnant, support for pregnancy and support for menopause or post-menopause. After a series of follow-up questions ranging from diet to daily personal struggles, the algorithm (powered by Binto medical professionals) recommends a variety of supplements specific to the user's concerns and needs. A monthly supply of supplement packets — which are vegetarian, organic where possible, non-GMO and free of gluten and preservatives — is then be sent directly to the user's door for $50 and can be adjusted at any time without any added fees.
Unlike Hers, all Binto products are over-the-counter and therefore don't require a prescription or doctor consultation. However, on top of access to safe and effective products and supplements, Binto's subscribers also receive 24/7 access to a licensed nurse, whether to chat about their current regimen or to ask basic health questions.
"You can schedule a 15-minute nursing consult before you subscribe, and 100 percent of the time, people who schedule a call before subscribing end up subscribing, so it's a really powerful tool," says Welsh. "One of the biggest things that is missing in the wellness category today that people are weary of with direct-to-consumer is a level of trust, and so the fact that we're founded by a licensed health care professional, and that we have licensed health care professionals on staff alongside our scientific advisory board, sets us apart."
A third company on the horizon of joining the ranks with Hers and Binto is Skin Laundry, which recently launched Skin Laundry Rx, a prescription-focused extension of its laser treatment-center and product line. The program is currently operating in beta solely in California, though it's slated to launch in New York, Illinois, Texas, Florida, Arizona and Colorado in Q1 of 2019, with plans to expand to 22 states by mid-year.
"Our goal is to provide affordable prescription skin-care medications formulated and customized by our team of medical professionals to match each individual's unique concerns and sensitivities," says Elyse Shelger, who is a registered nurse and Skin Laundry's director of medical operations. "Just as we made the concept of laser facials more accessible, we aim to do the same with prescription-grade skin care. Eliminate the barriers, simplify the process, keep the precision, power and add customization.”
With providers specializing in acne, rosacea, hyperpigmentation and aging, the company allows users to communicate with practitioners from the convenience and privacy of their own homes and have personalized medication shipped directly to their front doors — no waiting room debacles or prescriptions to pick up.
The process, much like with Binto's, begins with a thorough questionnaire created by Dr. Adam Geyer, Skin Laundry's global medicine director and a New York City dermatologist, that delves into every aspect of what you'd experience with a visit to the dermatologist. "It's been tweaked and re-tweaked to fully ensure all possible scenarios are covered," explains Shelger. "We also require photos to be submitted so providers can visually assess for themselves the condition of the skin before any prescriptions are written."
Once clients are set up within the system, they have the ability to message their provider directly, 24/7. Unlike either Hers or Binto, once Skin Laundry Rx matches a client with a provider, that will be their same provide throughout their entire journey with the service. "Anytime you have a question, they will be your point of contact that you can directly message, and they will be the one checking in on you periodically, especially early on as you adjust to your new prescription," adds Shelger.
It's features like this that allow Skin Laundry clients to trust the service, and why Shelger believers more and more consumers are ready for telemedicine.
"Everything is moving faster, and people just don't have time or the patience to wait two months for an appointment with an overbooked dermatologist, to then wait in a waiting room, follow up the visit with a drive to the pharmacy, search again for parking, wait in line at the pharmacy for their prescription that may or may not be covered," says Shelger.
According to a 2017 report by HIMSS Analytics, the adoption of telemedicine solutions and services had surged since the study was first conducted in 2014, from roughly 54 percent to 71 percent in 2017, noting that 9 percent of that growth had come from 2016 alone. It's such impressive growth that, when digested with the 2016 survey by Deloitte's Consumer Goods Forum highlighting the ways that consumers are prioritizing and valuing health, wellness and companies founded on transparency and facts now more than ever, it puts these young companies in a position to significantly revolutionize the healthcare industry.
If people, and women in particular, are looking for more streamlined, concise, convenient and accessible health care that they can trust, Hers, Binto and Skin Laundry are ready to provide a their piece of the full picture — all with appealing design and relatable messaging to boot.
"I think for a lot of people, telemedicine provides them with the opportunity to take their healthcare into their own hands," says Coles. "By providing this space and convenient and affordable diagnosis process, we can help make it easier than ever to help women access trusted providers and find reputable solution when they want one, and when they need one."
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