When IIT Bombay alumnus Achitha Jacob realised that women across the country hesitate in seeking help when it comes to their menstrual, reproductive and sexual health, she dropped out of Harvard Business School with a vision to build a healthcare brand exclusively for women. Having worked with Fortune 500 healthcare companies as well as healthcare start-ups, she established Proactive For Her in 2020 with an aim to empower women to learn about their sexual and reproductive health in a holistic manner. Based on patient needs, the start-up offers solution specific digital health clinics, health coaching for women, and diagnostic services. Having engaged with over 5,000 women until now, the venture has raised a pre-seed round from Nexus Venture Partners.
We caught up with Jacob, Founder and CEO, Proactive For Her. Excerpts:
Was there a particular incident that prompted you to think in the direction of Proactive For Her and then finally setting it up?
During the course of our research, we spoke to hundreds of modern, liberal-thinking women. We found that even they tend to delay doctor visits unless absolutely necessary. We noticed that even with gender-neutral issues such as kidney diseases and dialysis, women tend to deprioritise their health to save funds, and this type of negligence exists across the board. The stigma attached with women’s menstrual, sexual and reproductive health issues, coupled with inaccessibility to non-judgemental support, have long prevented many women from addressing their healthcare needs.
What kinds of roadblocks did you face when setting it up? Tell us also, about the difficulties in raising seed money.
The biggest roadblock has been the lack of awareness and sex education in our country. We’ve directed a lot of efforts toward patient education through various endeavours ranging from social media campaigns with community leaders, expert-authored blogs, workshops and webinars to free consultations to enable informed decision-making.
We were lucky in that our investors understood the gap which women in India faced. It is also a lucrative market with more women entering the workforce, increased disposable income, ability to make independent decisions and desire to access patient-centric care.
Proactive For Her has interacted with women from all kinds of backgrounds. What from these interactions seems to be the biggest factor in making them hesitant in talking about/seeking help for their reproductive health?
A multitude of reasons. For some, it’s the absence of a trusted care provider but for many, it’s the uneasy and judgmental questions on marital status, pregnancy termination and pre-marital sex that they are asked. From puberty to menopause, women are exposed to a number of health risks during their lifetime. The stigma attached to seeking help has stopped many women.
What is the worst kind of ignorance among women about their bodies that Proactive For Her has faced during these sessions?
There is a pressing need for healthcare providers to actively enable self-reflection and candid communication as women may hide or downplay their symptoms owing to the fear of being judged. In addition to this, women’s health issues often require multiple touchpoints with professionals across various specialisations. Some of our patients are women who have lived with chronic conditions. One such condition is Vaginismus which is defined as the inability to allow vaginal penetration of a penis, finger, tampon or menstrual cup due to a severe involuntary spasm of the vaginal muscles, despite the person’s definite wish to do so. This is an issue which is seldom spoken about, and women endure painful sexual encounters and experience self-blame and feelings of inadequacy. We cannot blame this ignorance on the women, and we need to collectively address them and create systems of care.
Do you ever find that instances of sexual health have worsened a lot because the person did not seek help soon enough?
We cannot address what we do not talk about. Sexual health is still a very taboo topic in India. For instance, STI testing is not a very common practice in our country. A lack of awareness about safer sexual practices and more importantly about the need for regular STI screening means a lot of sexually active women in India may not get tested. They are also not aware that all STIs are treatable and there’s also the added fear and stigma associated with a positive result. The consequences of undiagnosed and untreated STIs can be quite serious. For example, untreated chlamydia and gonorrhoea are big contributors to infertility in women. These are two infections that can be cured with a simple dose of antibiotics if detected early on.
How do you get a doctor on board? What kind of commitment and training is needed?
We have a strong in-house team of 10+ doctors and clinicians across specialisations such as gynaecology, endocrinology, dermatology, pathology, psychiatry, psychotherapy, nutrition and fitness. Our specialists commit hours, lead product development and help build awareness through patient education activities such as social media outreach and webinars. They have rich cumulative experience of over 150 years, with 16 years of global healthcare experience. We have a stringent vetting, training auditing process for our doctors and clinicians. We are proud of their values as practitioners such as being queer affirmative, body neutral (espousing health at all sizes) and patient centric.
How do you ensure the patient is comfortable with a tele-consult?
Ours is a company born during the pandemic and we were able to conceptualise products and services which cater to the current needs of our customers. We are focusing solely on easily accessible digital healthcare products and onboarding quality experts in physical, mental, sexual and reproductive healthcare for women. It was previously challenging for women to find a non-judgemental provider that respects their privacy especially when most women end up consulting family doctors. With the expansion of digital healthcare, they can now consult with doctors who create safe spaces for them to address their issues.
If you had to leave our readers with a thought, what would it be?
Be proactive about your health! Even if you don’t live with an illness, there’s always room to improve your wellness and achieve your target health goals like improving sleep, better nutrition, stress management, and so on. Ask for the kind of care you know you deserve. You needn’t put up with substandard healthcare where you don’t feel heard and respected, you are an equal partner in any decision that is made about your health. Remember, you cannot pour out of an empty cup so please take charge of your health and you don’t have to do it by yourself.
Photographs courtesy: Proactive For Her
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