New findings, published by Open University academics suggest there are gaps in the reliability of popular apps used by many to estimate fertility and for pregnancy planning.
Academics from the OU have put together an evidence review looking at menstruation and fertility apps. Published today in the BMJ Sexual & Reproductive Health journal, the findings highlight the lack of specialist input in the development of such apps, used to track fertility, plan pregnancy and as a form of contraception, and a lack of hard evidence to prove their precision.
Dr Sarah Earle, Director of Health & Wellbeing; Dr Hannah Marston, Research Fellow and Dr Duncan Banks, Lecturer in Biomedical Science, all from the OU, joined independent researcher, Robin Hadley to compile the paper. Using specialist databases they searched material published between 1 January 2010 to 30 April 2019, analysing the data according to three main themes: fertility and reproductive health tracking; pregnancy planning; and pregnancy prevention.
With a significant rise in the use of period tracking apps, with 200 million downloads in 2016 alone, concerns have been raised about the way in which these apps are marketed to the public, as well as the strength of evidence for their effectiveness in helping women avoid an unintended pregnancy.
Dr Sarah Earle commented:
“Existing apps don’t necessarily involve women in their design or development or take account of the way in which these apps are used in practice. This is especially important because the user is considered to be the single greatest ‘risk factor’ in the accuracy of apps, and this is particularly significant if women are seeking to prevent, or plan, a pregnancy.”
“The ability to accurately predict the fertile window is important, but the limited research that exists seems to indicate that many of the most popular apps are not accurate, even though they might contain information that supports pregnancy planning or are marketed specifically for this purpose. [This] could be very misleading for women and couples that are trying for a baby.”
The researchers admit that only studies published in English were included in their review, and that the differences in study design and methods, make it difficult to compare them. But they add that there has been little discussion about how these apps should be regulated, and that only limited guidance is available.
“There is considerable scope for future research, which takes account of ethnic, cultural, geographic and age diversity, and which is free of commercial influence. The involvement of fertility specialists and other health professionals should also be an important aspect of future research and development in this field.”
The paper is free to read here, until the 14 April 2020.