Technology & the Future of Fertility Awareness
There's a lot happening in the world of fertility these days. We sat down with Cycle Technologies founder Leslie Heyer to discuss.
Are Fertility Awareness Methods Misunderstood?
Fertility awareness-based methods have been around for many years and there are several different evidence-based methods. Often times, women have said that they are preventing pregnancy using some sort of vague rules around when they “think” they could become pregnant. Somehow this practice has been conflated with using actual fertility awareness-based methods (FABM), and rather than parsing this out, there has been a shorthand dismissal of the entire category, equating it with “the rhythm method.” This characterization has done a huge disservice to the field.
Of course, there is also the elephant in the room which is that for a long time, natural methods were being offered primarily by faith-based groups and often in lieu of other contraceptive methods. This has led to a lot of bias and misperceptions among health providers and users.
To be clear, fertility awareness methods are methods that help a woman know whether she is fertile or not on a given day, and use that information to prevent or plan pregnancy. There are several evidence-based fertility awareness methods - all of which try to identify the days when a woman could get pregnant. The different methods use different bio-markers and approaches to help determine when a woman is at risk for pregnancy.
How is Tech Changing the Fertility Space?
It is interesting to see new voices emerge in the fertility space. What was once somewhat marginalized is becoming increasingly “sexy” and high tech. Having worked in women’s reproductive health for the past 16 years, I've seeing a few exciting changes:
1) Technologists are improving upon existing fertility awareness-based methods with artificial intelligence. One example of this is the Dot fertility app which Cycle Technologies developed and is currently undergoing a full-scale contraceptive efficacy study supported by USAID. This app uses an algorithm to predict a woman’s fertility risk using just her period start dates. As a user enters more period dates, the app is able to personalize its information and predict her fertility risks and her future period dates more individually based on her data. Dot builds on our work with a method called the Standard Days Method™ – which is an effective calendar-based method. Because of advances in our computational capacity and the fact that people now carry these powerful computers in their pockets, we’ve been able to develop a similar approach with Dot – one that uses simple period tracking - but one that works for a lot more women, is more individualized and is even more effective.
2.) Developers are simplifying and making it easier for women to use fertility awareness methods by automating certain aspects. One challenge that fertility awareness methods have had historically is that some of them are quite complex and require that users enter a lot of information on a daily basis. We’re seeing technologies emerging which are trying to make it easier for women to use various methods by reducing these challenges. For instance, thermometers that sync automatically with an app, or sensors that record information without a user having to enter additional data. The research shows that when a contraceptive method is easy to use, it’s more likely that a woman will use it correctly and consistently. It may still be a hassle to take your temperature every day at the exact same time, but at least the information can be recorded for you automatically.
3.) Developers are collecting large-scale data and trying to identify possible breakthroughs. I do think this is interesting as women’s health has been often overlooked. And while some data sets already exist, there is great opportunity to collect additional data which could potentially lead to new insights. That said, I have yet to see any real breakthroughs that have been a result of this data collection. I’m also concerned about how this data is often getting used in the short-term.
I am a little wary of some of the claims that some technologists are making. While it is exciting to have new players in the space, it undermines the credibility of fertility awareness methods at large if they aren’t conducting rigorous research that fully supports their claims. I’ve seen a number of apps and technologies that claim that the data collecting will make the information users receive more accurate, yet the data that they are collecting has little bearing on determining pregnancy risk or ovulation prediction. It might be something that provides the developer with additional insight on the user, but it’s not necessarily giving the user herself better information.
What Impact is Technology Having on Women's Health?
The biggest impact is simply that women are becoming empowered with information about themselves. They are becoming more aware of their ability to control their reproductive health and their overall health through knowledge and understanding. I think it will be interesting to see if the large-scale data sets that are being collected actually yield truly new understanding about our fertility and health. At a minimum I hope they highlight areas that may deserve a deeper dive with rigorous research.
Should We Be Excited About the Insights Technology Will Bring?
I do think that consumers should be excited about the possibilities. At the same time, I think as a consumer you need to be thoughtful about what data you are sharing and how that data is getting used.
Cycle Technologies is a socially minded consumer product company based in Washington, D.C. The company creates Brilliantly Simple™ solutions to address global health needs with particular focus on reproductive health technologies. Since 2002 the company has worked with researchers, healthcare partners, and technologists to identify, develop, and make available leading edge ideas that fit its mission. To see more about the company’s initiatives, visit http://www.CycleTechnologies.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.