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Women in Power: Nurx CEO Varsha Rao

The Whipp caught up with a major player in women’s health technology, Nurx CEO Varsha Rao, to talk about how femtech is influencing health care during COVID-19 and beyond. An entrepreneur and heavy hitter at major companies like Clover Health and Airbnb, Rao is also a mom to two teens and has a passion for a healthy lifestyle.

If you’ve never heard of Nurx, it’s one of the biggest women’s digital health companies, allowing customers to tackle a variety of healthcare needs at home. From birth control to migraine treatment and at-home STI testing and treatment, Nurx is breaking down some of the barriers to health care, especially care specific to women.

Known as the “Uber for birth control,” the company has raised at least $115 million since 2015 and boasts Chelsea Clinton among its prominent board members. The company has provided services to more than 500,000 women, making Varsha Rao a leading authority in women’s digital health.

Check out our Q&A with the international executive touching on how the Covid pandemic has impacted digital health care, what's next for women's health and what Rao learned about herself through quarantine.

The Whipp: What role does technology play in women’s health? What are some of the pain points in the traditional health system that can be streamlined from tech platforms like Nurx?

Rao: Technology can empower women to stay on top of their health by allowing them to access care affordably, conveniently, and on their own terms. Traditionally, they’ve had to search for a doctor who takes their insurance or offers affordable out-of-pocket prices, wait for an available appointment, take time away from work or school to go to the appointment, and then wait in line at the pharmacy to pick up prescriptions. Even before the pandemic the average wait time for a doctor appointment was 24 days.

With our asynchronous telehealth platform, a woman can request care and share her health information literally any time—on the bus on the way to work, in between college classes, or at the end of the day after her children are asleep. She can message back and forth with one of our licensed medical providers at her convenience, then get her medication or tests sent to her door. Nurx accepts insurance and our out-of-pocket prices are generally more affordable than traditional care, plus patients save on incidental costs of transportation and time away from work.

Convenience and cost aside, the privacy of telehealth is very important to some women. We hear from many patients that they’ve experienced judgment and stigma when receiving in-person healthcare, and they appreciate the ability to confidentially connect with our medical providers and then have medication and tests discreetly delivered.

How has COVID-19 impacted women’s health? How has business changed for Nurx since the COVID-19 pandemic? Are those changes likely to stick after a return to normal, so to speak?

In addition to what you might call the acute impacts of the pandemic, when stay-home orders and Covid risk made it difficult and even dangerous for people to go to the doctor or the pharmacy, the secondary impacts of the pandemic have hit women harder. Because the work of family caregiving often falls on women, factors like overseeing children’s remote school, running errands for vulnerable relatives, and caring for people sick with Covid means that many women have even less time than before to care for themselves. Related to all of that, women have left or been forcibly removed from the workforce in much higher numbers than men, which often means loss of health insurance.

Nurx has experienced huge growth since Covid hit, starting with an immediate spike last spring during shelter-in-place orders, and demand has continued to increase ever since. In addition to a more than 50% increase in birth control patients, we’ve seen an 120% increase in demand for home STI testing, an almost 200% in request for herpes treatment, and a 300% in requests for emergency contraception from women who want to be prepared and have the morning-after pill on hand. In the fall we launched migraine treatment, and not a moment too soon, because all the screen time and stress right now can make migraines more challenging.

While we’re all hopeful that vaccines will conquer the virus itself in the near future, those repercussions—the career and economic fallout, the family that may need extra support—are likely to keep affecting women for a while.

What are some of your predictions for women’s health in the next few years? Beyond COVID-19?

Women will continue to demand convenience and control in healthcare, even once the pandemic has ended. Covid has accelerated trends that were already taking shape, such as people being less connected to a primary care physician, and expecting the option to have almost anything delivered.

Beyond Covid, care is likely to grow even more decentralized, with patients seeking care through a combination of telehealth and in-person, and no longer looking at prescriptions and tests as tied to an annual appointment with a specific doctor. There may be positives and negatives to this, but I’m optimistic that when patients have more control over their own care they’ll be more proactive and preventive, and not bump up against barriers of cost or convenience, or wait for that annual or less frequent appointment to think about their health.

Because of birth control, pregnancy, and routine screenings, young women generally have more touchpoints with the healthcare system than young men do. And as they get older, women often oversee the healthcare of the whole family, so women will be at the forefront of these big changes in how healthcare is delivered.

Are there any policies on your radar right now specific to women’s health and Nurx services? Are you looking forward to any specific changes under the Biden-Harris administration?

I’m so happy that the Biden administration fully supports the Affordable Care Act, because whenever it has been threatened over the past few years we’d hear from worried Nurx patients who weren’t sure if they could afford birth control without its contraceptive mandate. It’s a huge relief to know that LGBTQ+ people will gain vital protections from healthcare discrimination and that Title X family planning funds won’t be so limited.

Beyond those fundamentals, we hope to see more states changing their laws to encourage asynchronous telehealth, which doesn’t require a video or phone appointment. Anything the federal government might do to encourage telehealth-friendly policies at the state level could make delivery of vital healthcare more equitable nationally. Asynchronous care is generally easier for providers to practice and patients to access, and has proven to be safe and effective for many types of care.

We’ve seen restrictions on women’s health during COVID-19. For example, Texas attempted to block access to abortion services during the pandemic by calling it non-essential. How critical is technology in access to care? How can technology overcome some of these other barriers to accessing women’s health care?

Technology is absolutely critical for expanding access to care, especially for women who live in contraceptive deserts, which are counties where they lack reasonable access to a clinic offering comprehensive birth control—they may have to drive for an hour to reach affordable in-person care. More than 19 million women in need in the U.S. live in contraceptive deserts, according to the nonprofit Power to Decide. Allowing patients to connect with a medical provider online, quickly, affordably, and privately, can absolutely overcome geographic, financial, and logistical barriers.

What is your advice to women who want to work in healthtech? Where do you see the biggest opportunities within healthtech in the future?

My advice is to invest the time in learning all you can, by doing your research and asking questions. Healthcare is so complex, so one needs to learn about so many facets of it: The provider system, healthcare delivery, hospital systems and the way people pay for healthcare in the US, namely the insurers and the employers, since many people get their insurance through the workplace. The legal and regulatory aspects of all of these systems are deservedly complex, and even more so when it comes to healthtech since technology often creates change before regulation can keep up. But while it’s complicated, it’s an incredibly interesting and rewarding field where you can make a huge impact in people’s lives every day, so I encourage women to dive in.

The biggest opportunities lie in any innovation or technology that simplifies and streamlines medicine so that people are able to access preventive care much more easily and cost-effectively. That’s why our focus at Nurx is building technology that creates better, more efficient connections between patient, medical provider, and pharmacy.

Something I learned about myself during the COVID-19 pandemic is ________.

I learned that working remotely can be incredibly productive and effective and enables time with family, and taking care of one’s self. I exercise every day now, whereas before I often couldn’t find time . . . or had excuses for not making time. The lack of a commute has had real benefits. At the same time, I’ve learned how important it is to connect with colleagues and I sorely miss collaborating without screens separating us. We are counting the days until we can get our teams in the same rooms and work together in person.

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