China-born Xi Liu had moved to the United States in 2014 to pursue her Master’s degree from Carnegie Mellon University.
During her time there, she noticed the “stark differences” between how sexual healthcare is delivered in the United States and China.
“I could easily obtain humanpapillomavirus (HPV) vaccines, birth control and full gynaecology check-ups from the campus medical centre,” she recounted.
This propelled her to conduct intensive research on Asian women’s experiences, perspectives and behaviours around gynaecology and sexual health.
Her findings motivated her to start an online platform to address the gap in sexual healthcare in Asia. Called Ferne Health, it is touted to be Singapore’s first online sexual health platform to provide home-based STI screening kits.
From Silicon Valley To Singapore
Before starting up Ferne Health, Xi worked at the Silicon Valley for tech giants like Amazon and Adobe.
The 28-year-old was a product manager at Amazon Corporate, working with external partners on enabling its voice assistant Alexa on other parties’ devices.
Prior to Amazon, she worked as a product designer as part of Adobe’s Photoshop team.
“During my time at Silicon Valley, I was inspired by emerging technology startups. I decided to champion a cause — reinvigorating sexual healthcare — that would significantly impact daily life,” she said.
The Ferne Health team started conducting primary research in 2019, and first looked at general women’s health issues such as urinary tract infection (UTI) and HPV screening.
However, research results showed that although sexually transmitted infections (STI) are common among younger age groups, especially in Southeast Asia, sexual health is still deemed a “taboo topic” in the region.
She noted that while sexual health is important, there is reduced STI screening due to stigma or lack of awareness.
This is why when she moved to Singapore in January this year, she decided to work on launching Ferne Health.
According to their research, some of the top reasons that discourage people in developed regions from going for regular check-ups include inconvenience, privacy, social stigma and cost.
“We want to bring convenient and accessible solutions to more consumers and encourage more people to understand their health and bodies without any stigma.”
Get Tested In The Privacy Of Your Own Home
The bootstrapped startup currently offers five home-based self-test kits that screen for cervical cancer and common STIs (for both males and females) on its website, which will be delivered to your doorstep within two business days after purchase.
Ferne Health’s sampling tools are HSA-registered and CE-approved, with both sampling tools and testing protocols being clinically-approved.
Once a customer receives the kit, they can use the Kit ID to register their personal information and health history on its platform.
Customers can then schedule a sample pick-up, though it’s advised to arrange the pick-up within 24 hours after collection to achieve better quality results.
Once the results are ready, their partner doctors will deliver the results via the customer’s preferred method.
For one, they can opt to receive their results through Ferne Health’s partner clinic iDOC Clinic at Jurong West.
“If the results are positive, a tele-consultation is required so that our partner doctors can explain the results in detail and recommend follow-ups, if necessary,” said Xi.
“If there are any queries on the kits, consumers can also book a tele-consultation session on the site with our partner doctors.”
She added that out of all its home-based screening kits, only one kit requires a blood sample, which is the Peace of Mind Package, which tests for HIV, syphilis, herpes 1 and 2.
Unlike other countries such as US, UK or China, Singapore does not allow the use of dry blood samples typically used for at-home testing products, so they have carefully adapted and adjusted to meet local regulation requirements.
Xi commented that they make it a point to continually ensure convenience, while maintaining privacy and trust.
“As a consumer business, we want to ensure the smoothest customer experience by minimising friction during ordering, delivering, and sampling.”
Changing The Perception Of Sexual Health In S’pore
According to Xi, traction has been good so far as they have received plenty of email sign-ups and orders for their products.
Based on their their initial research and product testing however, they discovered that there is a lack of knowledge around HPV testing.
This is worrying because HPV infection is apparently the most common STI among sexually active adults. In fact, about 70 to 80 per cent of sexually active people are infected with HPV at some point in their lives.
“The virus can be passed to women from men who show no symptoms, and two high-risk HPV strains are directly linked to cervical cancer, which is still the top cause of death for women in lots of countries,” said Xi.
The Singapore government has done a lot to alleviate this with education campaigns and subsidised costs for HPV testing.
However, Ferne Health’s survey revealed that 60 per cent of respondents have never taken a pap smear or HPV test, or are even aware about HPV testing.
COVID-19 Challenges And Opportunities
Running a fledgling startup in the middle of a pandemic proved to be a business challenge, admitted Xi.
When the circuit breaker began, it was “extremely challenging” for her to connect with the local startup community and medical experts as business events and networking sessions were cancelled.
“Operationally, during the circuit breaker, as all the labs were occupied with COVID-19 testing, Ferne Health was unable to make much progress as plenty of our planned tests required PCR testing,” she added.
However, the upside is that the pandemic sparked a rise in delivery and home-based services. In line with this trend, she foresees that home-based testing and remote tele-consultation will “increase in popularity”.
“People are more comfortable with home-based services (now) and we hope that Ferne Health will be part of this new wave.”
Xi also observed that consumer services are no longer market-centric, but user-centric.
As a firm believer of good user experience, she stressed that “consumer experience matters”.
Sharing future business plans, Xi said that she is looking to expand their services to the rest of Southeast Asia. They are eyeing to launch in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia markets by next year.
She added that she hopes to see Ferne Health grow to be the leading sexual healthcare platform in Asia.
“(We want) to serve as a one-stop companion for people who want to understand, communicate and improve their own sexual health.”
“As a taboo topic in some cultures and religions, sexual health can be neglected, and most medical institutes that are active in the sexual health space face stigma as well. We want to build an open platform for everyone to feel free to speak up about sexual health.”
Featured Image Credit: Ferne Health