17 September 2019

Warning about the accuracy of fertility apps used by thousands of women to help in ‘baby making’

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Thousands of Australian women of reproductive age who are trying to conceive use smart phone or mobile tablet apps to track their menstrual cycles to determine the prime time to achieve pregnancy.

Others use the apps as a technical contraceptive guide to avoid unwanted pregnancy.

However, a new Australian study has found “staggering and disturbing” failures in the accuracy of many of these apps that may actually hinder rather than enhance the pregnancy expectations of women choosing from the hundreds of them available online.

Outcomes of the study on the utility and validity of current mobile device fertility apps were presented at the 2019 annual scientific meeting of the Fertility Society of Australia in Hobart today.

Brisbane-based fertility nurse and midwife, Samantha Costa, said it was already known that up to 70 per cent of women initiating fertility treatment track their cycles using apps on Android or iOS platforms.

“We believe that about this percentage of women in the general community also use these apps, either to help determine the best time to conceive or to assist in contraceptive measures,” she said.

The study conducted by researchers at Eve Health Fertility in Brisbane in conjunction with Queensland Fertility Group, members of Virtus Health, looked at almost 400 of the fertility apps available on line, and short-listed 36 that were marketed as being the most reliable in terms of efficacy and medical referencing.

“The apps are promoted as tools for ‘baby making’ with data capture and algorithms that include flow and ovulation symptom tracking, cycle length information and predictors, contraceptive tracking and health education,” Samantha said.

“However, we found that only 42 per cent of these short-listed apps were correct in what they were promoted to do for women, and the top three were Flo, Glow and Kindara. A significant number of them made unrealistic and unsubstantiated claims.”

The researchers used a systematic checklist and virtual patients to review the critical aspects of each app. The results were then assessed for the top 36 applications.

“Despite a significant increase in the number of fertility apps available, we found they have limited validity, make unrealistic claims of efficacy, and lack any form of professional medical review,” Samantha said.

“Furthermore, primary health care providers have limited familiarity with these apps and the features frequently used by their patients.

“Quite apart from the failures of these apps to provide accurate information on the best time to conceive, their unreliability for women tracking their ovulation times to avoid unwanted pregnancy is simply scary.”

Samantha also warned that overseas insurance companies were able to access data from the fertility apps to support so-called research.

“This is a form of implied consent to use personal information,” she explained.

“End users and health care professionals accepting the information provided by these apps should know that the outcomes are unreliable, incomplete and subject to commercial interests.

“Our take home message from this study, is that while a limited number of the many fertility apps available may provide a helpful guide to track ovulation cycles, nothing can replace professional medical advice for women wanting to conceive.”

The Fertility Society of Australia is the peak body representing scientists, doctors, researchers, nurses, consumers and counsellors in reproductive medicine in Australia and New Zealand. 

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