When a woman is trying to get pregnant, or trying to avoid pregnancy, she may want to use all the help she can get. Although smartphone applications may be appealing for family planning, a new study suggests these apps offer little assistance when it comes to avoiding or achieving pregnancy.
The study comes from Dr. Marguerite Duane of the Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C., and other researchers. The researchers will publish their results in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine July 7th, and in the meantime have released their results online. Many women are turning to tools like smartphone applications for natural family planning, so the researchers wanted to find out if these apps help or if they are simply fertility duds.
The researchers discovered 95 fertility-related applications on iTunes, Google, and Google Play, places where smartphone users go to download their apps. Of these 95 apps, the researchers excluded 55 from the study because they contained a disclaimer that their app was not to be used to avoid pregnancy or they did not claim to use fertility awareness-based methods (FABM) based on scientific evidence.
With 40 apps remaining that claimed to help family planning, the researchers used a rating system to evaluate each app. Based on criteria by Family Practice Management, the rating involved a five-point scale for ten clearly-defined criteria. Each of the ten points was weighted based on its level of importance for helping avoid pregnancy.
The apps varied in their function, with 30 apps predicting days when the user is most fertile and 10 not predicting those days. Of these 30 apps, only 6 scored as being perfectly accurate when predicting fertile days and having no false negatives, that is fertile days being classed as infertile days. Of the 10 apps that did not predict fertile days, the researchers only gave them a high score for accuracy if they required women receive outside training in FABM before using the app.
The results of the study were not encouraging, with few of the 95 apps seeming to be helpful for avoiding pregnancy. The researchers did not seem confident in recommending use of any of the fertility apps on their own to either help prevent or achieve pregnancy. However, they did suggest that women can use one of the apps they rated with a score of 4 or higher in accuracy and authority, but only after receiving training in FABM from a trained educator. This is because the apps can be useful in helping women record their fertility biomarkers.
Fertility awareness, also called natural family planning (NFP), involves knowing at what point in a woman’s menstrual cycle she is most likely to become pregnant. This can help women get pregnant if they time sex for those days or help them avoid pregnancy if they avoid sex or use other birth control methods on their most fertile days. The available apps vary, but most of them help women track their menstrual cycle, helping to predict when they are ovulating and therefore most likely to become pregnant. This is sometimes called the calendar or rhythm method. Some of the apps also help women track their body temperature, with a rise in temperature usually signaling ovulation. Still other apps help women track their cervical mucous, with a change in mucous indicating that a woman is at her most fertile. Although these methods can help women better predict when they are at their most fertile, they are not fool-proof ways of avoiding or achieving pregnancy. The timing of ovulation can vary from woman to woman and even from month to month for the same woman.
Many women use natural family planning as a birth control method instead of using contraceptive drugs or other devices to prevent pregnancy. Still other women use natural family planning to help them become pregnant without fertility drugs or in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments. It is best for women to talk to an expert before relying on fertility awareness apps as their main method of birth control.