Apps to help women plan or prevent pregnancy have started gaining ground, and with widely promising results. A team of researchers hopes to take their fertility algorithm one big step further toward widespread use with a first-of-its-kind efficacy study on its performance for real women, and in real time.
Last week, researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center’s Institute for Reproductive Health (IRH) announced the launch of a year-long study on the efficacy of Dot, a free app that allows women to plan or prevent pregnancy based on input about their cycles, and which–as one of few such apps with empirical evidence behind it–has shown signs of being up to 98% effective. According to researchers, the study will be the first ever to test the efficacy of app-only birth control during its ongoing use, which could mean the role of reproductive tech in women’s health is about to grow.
Short for Dynamic Optimal Timing, the algorithm-based app tracks users’ cycles to calculate their individual likelihood of becoming pregnant on any given day based on variable cycle data from many thousands of women, and without the help of any external equipment. Over time, the free Android and iOS app also fine-tunes its performance by factoring in those small-to-enormous cues and changes that make each woman’s cycle unique (and which say a lot about her fertility, if you know how to listen).
(Image courtesy Cycles Technologies)
Dot is the latest product from Cycle Technologies, a social venture that’s already in the habit of providing free family planning in easy-to-use formats to women around the world. With its fairly ground-breaking CycleBeads , the company spent several years offering a tangible, low-tech, and effective way for women to manage their fertility with a somewhat more sophisticated version of the standard days-method. With the introduction of the CycleBeads app, which functions similarly to Dot but doesn’t factor in other women’s (delicately handled) data, founder Leslie Heyer discovered that the upswing in accessible smartphones worldwide had many women reaching for the convenience of their smartphones when it came to fertility tracking.
In October, the company announced that over 75,000 women in Kenya and Ghana had downloaded the CycleBeads app in the prior two months. Of the approximately half of women who used it to prevent pregnancy, 20% reported that hadn’t been using another birth-control method beforehand [PDF].
"In the past year, as smartphone use has exploded in developing world, our impact studies in Kenya, Ghana, and India and saw huge uptakes in the use of the [CycleBeads and earlier iOS-version Dot] apps," Heyer explained by phone. "Surveys also showed that these apps were reaching women that weren’t using other contraceptive methods."
With funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Georgetown study will now seek to determine how effective the app’s patent-pending algorithm can be in real time and subject to real-life conditions, which don’t always swing a user’s way. Based on the experiences of up to 1,200 participants using Dot’s new Android app, researchers will evaluate exactly how women are choosing or managing to use the product, which will also net info on sexual activities and other factors using pop-ups and pushes that are completely in-app.
"We really want to be able to compare its efficacy to other contraceptive methods, and to give rigorous attention to how women are using the app," Heyer said. Developed in collaboration with experts at Duke and Ohio Universities, the app isn’t geared solely toward helping women plan or prevent pregnancy, either, according to Heyer. "The method involved address a lot of women’s needs and questions in the area of conception," she said, "and we want to put this information in women’s hands, however they choose to use it. And they need to know it’s accurate."
(Image courtesy Cycle Technologies)
And while the study is just one step for researchers toward making Dot available to a broader user base, this kind of tech is all but poised for mainstream medical acceptance. As VentureBeat reported last week, the Swedish fertility app Natural Cycles, which uses a connected vaginal thermometer to help the (paid subscription) product track women’s cycles, has just received UK approval for use as a contraceptive device.
At present, Heyer says, app-based products which don’t include test-able, patent-able external devices tend to fall through the FDA’s regulatory cracks, and don’t require approval for promotion and use in the U.S. Given the rash of medical apps that are being continuously rolled out, though, it seems likely that the agency will soon start making preparations and protections for this widening range of products.
In the meantime, Heyer and her collaborators plan to determine whether their free product can offer reliable assistance to the estimated 225 million women worldwide who want to avoid pregnancy but aren’t using, or don’t have access to, effective family-planning methods but want to avoid pregnancy.
“Dot users have a historical opportunity to advance the science of birth control and family planning,” she noted in a release. “No fertility app has undergone such rigorous testing, [and users] who join our effort can help make free, effective fertility tools accessible to women throughout the world.”
If 225 million women have anything to say about it, it’s likely also one of the most useful and meaningful ways–as part of a study or part of everyday life–to pass some time messing with your smartphone.
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