Using safe digital health to close the gender health gap

Using safe digital health to close the gender health gap

The scale of the problem

In 2022, the UK government published the first ever Women’s Health Strategy for England to tackle the gender health gap. The 127-page strategy stated that “historically, the health and care system has been designed by men, for men”. However, this isn’t an England-specific problem. Already in 2024 the World Economic Forum has prioritised discussion on closing the gender health gap worldwide, citing “with only 1% of healthcare R&D invested in female-specific conditions, what key actions and commitments are needed to achieve gender health parity?”

The Global Alliance for Women’s Health ( Closing the Gender Gap in Health, World Economic Forum Annual Meeting (

Good health and improved economic power go hand in hand, particularly for women and girls. Being able to earn a living raises women, and by association their families too. A woman’s ability to do that is directly impacted by poorer health and poorer health outcomes, sometimes even premature death, when compared to men.

According to the Global Alliance for Women’s Health:

 “Addressing the women’s health gap could potentially boost the global economy by at least $1 trillion annually by 2040. Investing in women’s health – which is more than just sexual or reproductive health – is therefore not only a matter of health equity, but a chance to help women have expanded workforce participation. Most importantly, it would help them live healthier lives.”

The Global Alliance for Women’s Health (


How is access to safe digital health helping?

ORCHA’s mission is to put the power of digital health safely into the hands of everyone who needs it.

However, when we look specifically at apps which have undergone the ORCHA Baseline Review (OBR) in the areas of women’s health and pregnancy, sadly the data only serves to highlight the World Economic Forum’s 1% statistic. ORCHA’s Data and Insights Manager, Lisa Gobin, has delved into the data and her findings are stark.

Only 9.6% of the total number of apps which have undergone the OBR are categorised to support women’s health.

And, in further concerning news, the standard of apps in this area is lower, with only 47% passing the OBR vs an overall figure (for all apps, all topics) of 51%.

In a final reflection of the lack of serious, continual, investment in apps covering women’s health only 30% of these apps meet their ESF Tier requirement vs an overall figure (for all apps, all topics) of 40%. Evidence standards framework (ESF) for digital health technologies | Our programmes | What we do | About | NICE.

There is some good news, Lisa reassures us.

The busiest year for app releases in this area was 2021 demonstrating, hopefully, an improvement in choices for women and digital health solutions offered to them. Unsurprisingly, it follows that the busiest year for app reviews undertaken by ORCHA in this area was 2022.

It is heartening to see growth and demand in this area increasing year on year. But is it enough, fast enough? And how are we ensuring that we’re meeting our mission by putting the power of digital health safely in the hands of everyone who needs it – in this case women and girls specifically?


Getting safe digital health into women’s hands starts with us

If global smartphone usage data is considered as a representation of accessibility to digital health apps, it is reassuring to read that “the gender gap in smartphone ownership is usually in the mid-single digits, where gaps exist at all.” Smartphone Ownership Is Growing Rapidly Around the World, but Not Always Equally | Pew Research Center.

Infact, Pew Research goes further, to say “gender plays only a limited role in explaining differences in technological use in most countries. Whether in advanced or emerging economies, men and women generally use technology – including smartphones, the internet and social media – at similar rates.”

It is no coincidence then that we have noticed an increased need across clients to surface safe apps to women, with the majority now dedicating areas of their public facing Health App Libraries to apps aimed at women and girls.

ORCHA Senior Customer Success Manager, Stephanie Lord, has spoken with her Project Lead for ORCHA at Sussex Community Foundation Trust to further demonstrate that the right steps are being taken to support women and girls’ health outcomes.

Mel Briers, Digital Nurse Specialist (Innovation), RGN/SCPHN – Sussex Community NHS Foundation Trust:

“Having looked after women throughout my career as a nurse and midwife I am passionate about the way digital platforms can support women of all ages, backgrounds and experiences to access high quality health and wellbeing information that will enable them to make informed decisions about their own health. Creating a Women’s Health Carousel on our SCFT ORCHA Library created a safe space, where women could seek advice and support on sensitive issues and manage their own health, in ways that would not otherwise have been available to them, going some way to promoting equity in healthcare delivery.” 

Lisa backs this strategy up with ORCHA insights, women are actively searching for – and downloading – apps related to their health.

Infact, in 2023, use of Women’s Health carousel topics was up by 35% compared to 2022.

Perhaps the most startling statistic Lisa has for us is in the growth of downloads for apps in this area, the year-on-year increase has been consistent since 2018. Unsurprisingly, during the COVID pandemic and lockdowns downloads in this area increased exponentially, seeing growth in 2020 of 920% compared to 2019.

But even without the effect of lockdowns, from 2021 to 2023 downloads increased again, by 223%, and given the increased searches this year so far, we are predicting further growth consistent with this trend.


Our next steps

ORCHA Senior Vice-President for UK Health Systems, Alison Johnson, knows exactly what our next steps need to be:

” As part of our activation strategies, and from the emergent data trends being seen, we have a great opportunity to create portfolios of safe Apps that support a wide range of support for Women.   Our work with our clients in curating access to these products means we can support more women in improving their self-care, and more importantly, improve women’s health outcomes.”

And it’s true – women and girls have the technology they need in their hands, and when presented with safe digital solutions they’re engaged and open to accessing the support. There is a worldwide demand to serve them improved health outcomes. But, as we’ve noted, the growth of apps in this area peaked in 2021, and the quality of women’s health apps assessed by ORCHA isn’t as consistently high as the average health app. So whilst the work has most definitely started, there is a long way to go.

The future for the sector is clearer than ever, as ORCHA’s Founding CEO Liz Ashall-Payne tells us:

 “Looking back on mine and the teams journey with ORCHA, I’ve seen a significant increase in awareness and support for women’s health. As we move forward into the digital era, let’s continue to advocate for innovation and accessibility in healthcare, empowering every woman with the resources she needs to lead a healthy life. Together, we’re not just shaping the future; we’re revolutionising it—one digital step at a time”.