Femtech, or female health technology, is booming. Its most recent subject is menstrual health. First came contraceptive apps, promising a natural way to avoid unwanted pregnancy through period tracking. Then came fertility apps, offering the opposite. But how effective can these really be? Are they just pseudo-science dressed up by Silicone Valley and offering false promises?
Just this week the Advertising Standards Authority announced that contraceptive app Natural Cycles is under investigation for ‘misleading’ and ‘unsubstantiated’ claims made in a 2017 Facebook campaign. Describing itself as a ‘clinically-tested alternative to birth control methods’ has caused major issues for the Swedish app which uses a thermometer (accurate to two decimal places) to determine fertility levels based on body temperature. In January, a major Swedish hospital reported that 37 of the 668 women who had sought an abortion there between September and December 2017 were using Natural Cycles as their sole birth control. The Swedish Medical Products Agency is investigating as a result. Links to unwanted pregnancies is surely disastrous for the app and demonstrates the risks of relying solely on any one form of contraception.
In an interview with the Standard, Professor Adam Balen, spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaeologicsts, said there is always a risk when using these apps. “Fertility apps can be helpful when planning a pregnancy, however, there is always a risk of pregnancy with any device that does not prevent the release of an egg or prevent the sperm from reaching the egg.”
The menstrual cycle is largely shrouded in mystery and rarely discussed. Where the benefits of these apps seem to lie is in the information and insight they can provide into a woman’s body. Clue was an early contributor to this field. Launched in 2013, the app allows women to record how they feel both physically and emotionally, thus enabling them to identify patterns in their own cycle. Essentially, Clue helps women understand their bodies better. Knowledge is power after all. It’s about making reproductive health part of everyday dialogues and helping women understand their bodies in ways that have simply not been commonplace before.
This is echoed by Dr Deborah Bateson, Director of Family Planning NSW. “When it comes to fertility apps, they are best used to help women learn more about their reproductive cycle so they can plan pregnancy rather than to prevent it,” she told ELLE Australia. Ovulation is unpredictable, and whilst the concept of ‘natural family planning’ is an attractive one, the instances of unwanted pregnancies in women using the Natural Cycles app surely shows that they cannot be relied on.
Clue provides a rare opportunity for the scientific community: capturing detailed, constant data about menstruation and fertility cycles from a pool of millions around the globe. Tracking your menstrual cycle through period apps means that you are contributing to a data set that is essential for future research into women’s health. To this end, Clue is now working with world-leading research institutions, such as Stanford University, Columbia University, the University of Oxford and the Kinsey Institute. Partnerships with scientific organisations form the crucial bridge between this accumulation of data and its analysis.
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