UCSF Alumni Breaking Barriers

Sunday, February 19, 2017

By co-founding one medical startup company, a UCSF alumni is breaking several barriers at once. Dr. Sophia Yen, M.D., M.P.H., UCSF alumni of 1997, is striving to ease access to birth control while also encouraging women and minorities into an underrepresented field.

Pill anxiety: that stressful feeling when you’re on your last week of birth control and need to rush to the pharmacy before you run out of pills. This term was coined by Dr. Yen, who designed Pandia Health to simplify access to birth control by delivering it through the mail.

“One of the top three reasons women don’t use their birth control is they don’t have it on hand,” says Dr. Yen.

She too, suffered from pill anxiety, and sought a solution to eliminate this stress from women’s lives, decrease unplanned pregnancy, and increase access to birth control.

Pandia Health offers free delivery of up to a year’s supply of birth control with automated refills from its partner pharmacies and/or consultation for a prescription, no visit necessary.

“10.7 million women use birth control, but another 5 million would use it if it were easily available,” she said.

That’s both an unmet need and an untapped market. Out of the women responding to Pandia Health’s advertisements for birth control delivery, 50 to 60 percent either had birth control prescriptions that had expired or they didn’t realize they needed a prescription in the first place.

Breaking Walls

In the process of bringing the startup to fruition, Dr. Yen needed funding, but gaining access was not always easy. In the field there exists a strong bias against age, against physicians, and against women.

“Funders want the next Zuckerberg,” she said.

Yet Dr. Yen believes that her seasoned position brings far more useful resources to the table, such as an expansive network of connections.

“I’m at the age where all of my friends are at the top of their game.”

But if you’re going to do something right, sometimes you have to do it yourself. Working off the financial support of friends and family, Dr. Yen used her connections to assemble the team of professional women plus one man founding Pandia Health.

As she proudly touts, Pandia Health is the only women-founded, women-led company in the reproductive health space, the only practicing reproductive health physician founded, physician-led company in the space, the only underrepresented minority-founded company in the space, and the only pharmacist-founded startup in the space. It’s quite the niche, but an important one.

“You just can’t be in another person’s shoes, which is why we need diversity represented at all levels […] even China has more women leaders than we do, and that’s because of Communism,” she said.

Her drive to bring women into male-dominated spaces is reflected in her organization SheHeroes, which produces online content that encourages young women to pursue non-traditional careers.

In this political climate where our leaders are waging an explicit war against the rights of the traditionally oppressed, Dr. Yen believes her diverse company represents hope.

“Nor rain, nor sleet, nor snow, can block our birth control.”

Why Birth Control?

Dr. Yen grew up realizing that every teen pregnancy could ultimately result in a lost future for both the parent and child. A question that was always at the forefront of her mind was, “How do we get this new generation involved in reproductive rights?”

This led her to pursue a career in adolescent medicine, where she could focus her work on outpatient gynecology, informing young people about sexual practices and women’s health.

One of her passions, in fact, is educating physicians and laypeople on emergency contraception.

“What most people (and many physicians) don’t know is that the number two emergency contraceptive is ulipristal acetate, AKA Ella, and Plan B is actually third,” she says, highlighting the critical lack of knowledge by the public.

Her recommendation? Skip Plan B and go with Ella or the number one emergency contraception, the copper IUD.

The Advantages of Telemedicine

While Dr. Yen admits that the growing market of telemedicine (the use of telecommunications to provide clinical services) can overreach in its ability to provide optimal service in some areas, she is confident that her business model is sound.

In both 2012 and 2016, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommended that birth control be available over the counter, and California is also one of three states to allow pharmacists to prescribe birth control.

Given this “green light” on safety, and the added layer of a doctor’s evaluation built into the prescription process, Dr. Yen and her team had no qualms about bringing birth control to the digital age.

Dr. Yen also stresses a key advantage of the outpatient model: it doesn’t require a physical presence. This would seem obvious, but forcing women to find time to visit a physician and pick up a prescription at a pharmacy can be both time-consuming and potentially embarrassing. To her, the point is increasing access and maintaining privacy.

“By moving it out of the person to person interaction you would protect that confidentiality.”

And while altruistic in goals, Dr. Yen also envisions the start-up as a growing business.

“We start with birth control, gain women’s trust, and grow as women grow […] over-the-counter add-ons, condoms, STI Testing, pregnancy tests, tampons, heatpads, chocolates, tea, candles.”

As a delivery service, Pandia Health can expand to have advertisers pay them to include samples in packages, combining medicine and marketing.

A little less than a year after its founding, Pandia Health already has 323 customers, growing by 30 percent each month.

“We know when we do telemedicine, there’s profit to be made,” she said.

If you’re a pharmacy or medical student, keep an eye out for this company in the future, as they will be looking for pharmacists and prescribing physicians as the business grows. And for those of you that are interested in the services at Pandia Health, enter the referral code UCSF at sign up and they will make a donation to UCSF for each person that subscribes.