Getting access to birth control pills and other means of reproductive and sexual healthcare is not as straightforward as it should be. Besides the need for a prescription, the cost of contraception and simply the lack of cohesive sexual health education, 51.1% of women surveyed by Ease also cite “stigma and shame” as a barrier to accessing these services in Singapore.
Keenly identifying these problems, Guadalupe Lazaro and her partner, Rio Hoe, embarked on co-founding Ease, a digital healthcare platform that provides for the sexual and reproductive healthcare needs of its users.
The Peak talks to Lazaro about starting their business, and how they hope to change mindsets about sexual and reproductive healthcare in Singapore in tandem with the values of International Women’s Day.
What was the trigger for you and Rio to start this company, especially in the midst of a pandemic?
Rio, my co-founder, and I started working on Ease in September of 2019, while I was still a university student in Singapore. The idea was inspired by our own experiences of facing stigma or barriers when trying to access sexual and reproductive health services– from uncomfortable encounters at the clinic (including being judged and receiving unwanted advice) to hours spent queuing up just to get a birth control refill.
These experiences made us realize the significant barriers to accessing sexual and reproductive health services due to prevailing cultural norms and an existing infrastructure which still relies on face-to-face consultations at clinics. As a result, people often do not get the help they need.
We were in the planning stages of our business when the COVID pandemic began. However, we found out that many women were turned away from clinics because certain sexual and reproductive health services were not regarded by many clinics as “essential services” during phase 1 of Singapore’s Circuit Breaker period, so we decided to launch our business as soon as possible in order to help women get the help they need during this difficult time.
Were there any obstacles or initial struggles you faced in trying to get your start-up going?
Digital health is a relatively new way of accessing healthcare that is just now emerging in Asia. Hence, our main challenge at the beginning was to help both doctors and users overcome the reservations they had about adopting digital health solutions. However, we have been very encouraged by the amazing uptake our platform has had over the course of the past 9 months, with many people starting to see its benefits, and by the positive response from doctors, pharmacies, and laboratory providers. At this point, we have over 11,000 members on our platform, and are seeing consistent user growth month on month.
In line with IWD, how will Ease continue to exemplify IWD goals?
This year’s IWD theme is “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world”, and focuses on the efforts made by women around the world in shaping a more equal future and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ease strongly resonates with this mission as it aims to shape a post-COVID future where sexual and reproductive health is considered a basic right, and women are able to access these healthcare services conveniently and affordably. While the barriers to access existed even before the pandemic started, these obstacles were exacerbated during COVID-19. Ease is therefore on a mission to shape a more equal post-COVID future that treats women’s healthcare needs such as sexual, reproductive, menstrual and fertility health as a priority.
At the same time, this year’s IWD calls for women’s right to decision-making in all areas of life. Ease is working towards this goal by helping women make informed decisions with regards to their health and wellness and empowering them to take control of this aspect of their life through accessible healthcare services, education and support networks.
Following up on the topic of women, do you think the sexual health of women is purely the responsibility of women?
We think that when it comes to topics like STD testing and contraception, we often encourage our community to openly discuss these things with their partners (whether they are males or females) and ensure that there are always open lines of communication to ensure that the responsibility is shared.
Sharing responsibility could take the form of splitting costs, checking in with one another, attending consultations together, sharing research with one another, or even scheduling an annual test or check up together.
In your opinion, what is the role of education in promoting the sexual health of women?
We created Ease not just to provide a healthcare service, but also a support system, a community, and an educational platform to create empowering experiences for our users and make them feel understood, supported, and engaged.
We noticed that there was a lack of awareness and discussion on sexual and reproductive health in Singapore. This inspired us to not just improve access to these services, but also to develop educational resources and community spaces for people to ask questions and seek help, in order to de-stigmatize these topics and ensure that people are able to get the help they need.
(Related: Is the future of healthcare digital?)
How is Ease going about introducing the idea of women’s sexual health into the mainstream of a more conservative country like Singapore?
With our digital health platform, we are revolutionizing the way in which these healthcare services are delivered. Our users love the fact that they can now access these services from the comfort of their home in a manner that is comfortable, convenient and discreet.
We are bringing sexual health into the mainstream through our community spaces and social media presence which allows people to interact with one another and realise that many women face the same issues they do, as well as conveying the message that these are
important topics that we should not be ashamed of or shy away from discussing. At the same time we produce plenty of educational content through our blog, newsletter and social media which allows people to learn more about these topics and eliminate any misconceptions they might have of these topics.
Finally, is Telecommunication in healthcare here to stay even after the pandemic subsides?
We believe that COVID-19 has shifted a lot of attention to telehealth services like ours, especially because the pandemic has worsened access to sexual and reproductive health services. However, we believe that this demand for convenient and affordable access to sensitive healthcare services will continue to grow COVID considering that many of the pain points associated with this area of healthcare existed even pre-COVID.
Find out more about Ease here.