A Fertility App That Helps Women Avoid (or Plan for) Pregnancy

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Not long after the advent of smartphones, fertility apps began to crop up, appealing to women who seek a more convenient way to increase the odds of conception. Most of these apps use a one-size-fits-all approach that assumes all women have the same average 28-day menstrual cycle, when actual cycles range widely from 20 to 40 days. Now, researchers at Georgetown University’s Institute for Reproductive Health (IRH) are recruiting participants for a new, real-time study of a free fertility app called Dot (Dynamic Optimal Timing) which takes this range into consideration. 

Created by Cycle Technologies, Dot takes into account the variety of menstrual cycles and gives a personalized, daily percentage risk of pregnancy based on—at first—a singular point data: the first day of menstruation. Over time, the app learns about an individual woman’s menstrual cycle and adapts to it. The app is currently available on the iOS platform and forthcoming for Android in August. 

The algorithm the app uses to make this "risk analysis" was based on empirical data drawn from two fertility studies (a cohort from the North Carolina-based Early Pregnancy Study and a World Health Organization study) of some 1000 women in six geographically and culturally distinct locations around the world, including the U.S. In a recent study, a team of statisticians from IRH revisited this data and tested the DOT algorithm against it. They found that the app is accurate at predicting fertile days 96–98 percent of the time. They published their results in the European Journal of Contraception and Reproductive Health Care.

While other fertility apps exist, “most, quite honestly, have not published or indicated in any way how their algorithms were developed, and they don’t appear to be accurate enough to allow women to rely on them for preventing a pregnancy,” says Victoria Jennings, director of IRH.

Their particular algorithm “is going to learn about the woman who is using it, learn her cycles and be able to adapt,” Jennings tells mental_floss.

DOT was designed to be sophisticated enough to be used as a family planning resource in either direction—that is, to avoid or to plan for pregnancy. Jennings says many women would like more control over when they become pregnant without taking oral contraceptives or using condoms; she notes that another recent IRH study found that women who don't want to get pregnant yet avoid contraception are worried about side effects and are "concerned about their future health and their future fertility,” Jennings says. She believes these women will take to DOT because it will empower them with a new option.

As for the new study, IRH is recruiting up to 1200 volunteers to participate. To enroll, women simply have to download the app, which will invite them to participate. The goal is to collect data (via in-app questions) that explore gender issues related to both technology and fertility, including "women’s access to phones, their ability to use the app, their ability to communicate to their partner about their fertility [and] their ability to avoid pregnancy if they want to—or not—have sex on the days they are fertile," Jennings says.  

Because the hope is that low-income women around the world—who may have access to smartphones but few other resources—could benefit from the free app, the study is being funded by a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development as part of the Fertility Awareness for Community Transformation (FACT) Project.