In a world built around the needs of men, women’s health and healthcare have long been neglected fields of medicine and medical technology. Even today, after decades of international cooperation to improve the physical, mental and social wellbeing of women and girls, continued discrimination and limited research mean that women’s health often lags behind men’s. One company addressing this gender health gap is OMRON Healthcare Co., Ltd., a subsidiary of Japanese electronics manufacturer, OMRON Corporation.
OMRON Healthcare can trace its origins back to 1973, when OMRON released its first blood pressure monitor for home use. The company has since expanded to develop and sell a wide range of home health equipment and medical health equipment, including blood pressure monitors, nebulizers, thermometers, low-frequency therapy devices and body composition monitors, health management software and health promotion service business. In recent years, the company has also been developing hypertension treatment support services using artificial intelligence as well as remote medical care services. What remains unchanged over OMRON Healthcare’s five decades, however, is its desire to create accurate healthcare equipment that can easily be used at home by ordinary people.
As a long-established manufacturing company with an international presence, OMRON Healthcare is the owner of a significant amount of intellectual property (IP), especially patents. Three-quarters of its 1,661 patents relate to cardiovascular products – mostly blood pressure monitors, the company’s most venerable area of expertise. A total of 636 patents are registered in Japan, followed by 430 in China and 302 in the United States. In recent years, the company has also been strengthening its IP portfolio in India (19 patents) and Brazil (17 patents). OMRON Healthcare regularly uses the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) to register patents in multiple countries with only a single application.
Beyond patents, OMRON Healthcare also actively protects the designs of its products. As a company creating and selling products for general consumers, the development and protection of distinctive and attractive products is very important. Design applications are filed in accordance with the timing of new product announcements. As with patents, most design applications relate to the company’s cardiovascular devices, such as blood pressure monitors, followed by those related to the respiratory system.
The company also prioritizes trademark applications, and is actively filing trademark applications for individual products and services in Japan and globally.
The inventors named in OMRON Healthcare’s patent applications reveal that the proportion of patent applications that include female inventors has increased in recent years. In 2020, more than three-quarters of the company’s PCT applications – 76.4 per cent – included at least one female inventor, a greater proportion than any other company in the top 200 PCT applicants in Japan. For most other companies in this category, fewer than half their patents include a single female inventor.
Remarkably, given its trailblazing record in female innovation, OMRON Healthcare does not carry out any special activities to increase the ratio of female inventors within the company. Instead, it attributes its narrowing gender gap to the presence of female staff in the company’s IP Department, various company-wide initiatives to improve the working environment for women, and OMRON Style Beauty – a range of health products and advice tailored specifically for women.
OMRON Style Beauty was launched in 2009 by a group of female employees. Initially a voluntary project, it was officially designated an in-house project in 2010 before being promoted to a company section in 2014. OMRON Style Beauty supports women’s beauty and health with advice, information and healthcare products related to menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, menopause and women’s health in general. Its mission is to help build a society in which women can be beautiful and healthy throughout their lives. OMRON Healthcare uses its website and social media channels to disseminate reliable information.
The MC-652LC, an electronic basal thermometer, was announced as the first OMRON Style Beauty product in September 2014. With this product, OMRON Healthcare aimed to dispel the notion that women’s thermometers need only be used during pregnancy and for contraception, and instead promoted daily body temperature measurements as a useful way to accurately understand and predict hormonal changes, ovulation dates and menstruation. To ensure the product would be used by its target market of busy working women, the company aimed to design a product that can measure body temperature quickly, is easy to use and looks stylish.
In meeting the first of these requirements – to quickly measure body temperature – the company also wanted to address customer complaints that other OMRON Healthcare thermometers took too long to record an accurate temperature. The product team therefore developed a unique algorithm that cut measurement times to just 10 seconds, reducing the burden of temperature measurements on busy mornings.
To further improve functionality, OMRON Healthcare reduced the size of the display screen of their previous thermometers – used to graph and display hormone levels and ovulation – and included Bluetooth functionality, allowing data to be transferred wirelessly to a smartphone. By linking with a smartphone, data can be clearly displayed and viewed at any time. The thermometer itself can store up to 40 days of data without the need to connect to a smartphone.
In terms of design, the product team wanted to create something that did not look like a thermometer. Instead, they aimed to create a smart and discrete device that would not look out of place in a handbag or on a bedside table. Practical considerations also shaped the design. Some users of other OMRON Healthcare oral thermometers had complained that the pointed tip of the device was uncomfortable in the mouth. In response, the team designed a flattened, non-slip tip to minimize discomfort during measurement. A main design and a partial design application were filed and registered for this product (Japanese design registration nos. 1451493 and 1451494). Women are credited as creators on both designs.
In recognition of its work to the active participation of women in its projects, the OMRON Corporation has also been selected as a Nadeshiko Brand for five consecutive years. The Nadeshiko Brand sees the Tokyo Stock Exchange and the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry celebrate companies that have made excellent efforts to empower women. OMRON also has a dedicated department for diversity promotion, established in 2012, which works to remove barriers to female inclusion.
However, to achieve its ultimate goal – to “enable women to fully demonstrate their individual abilities and individuality, and work actively and with a sense of purpose” – OMRON appreciates that there is still plenty of work to be done. First, it is necessary to increase the ratio of female employees in key management positions, to ensure that female talent and perspectives inform business decisions throughout the company. Second – and to help achieve this first aim – the company will promote flexible working styles. By the end of March 2025, OMRON aims to have at least 19 women holding key management roles, and to have raised the childcare acquisition rate for men to 50 per cent or more.
By taking these steps, OMRON Healthcare hopes to help close the gender gap – both externally, in the fields of health and healthcare technology, and internally, among its own pioneering team of female and male inventors, designers and managers.