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A new study has thrown into question the legitimacy of period tracking and fertility apps, warning that they likely won't help women to get pregnant, or avoid doing so.
With some women worried about going out to get their usual contraception prescription due to coronavirus, and others seeing lockdown as an opportunity to go on a break, many are turning to fertility and period tracking apps instead.
But the review, published by The BMJ, highlights the need for greater regulation and guidance on this "inaccurate" pocket technology, and warns that women should not rely on them.
Dr Diana Mansour, vice president for clinical quality of the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare, said: "It's understandable that during the COVID-19 pandemic, women may choose to turn to fertility apps as a logical solution for avoiding face-to-face consultations.
"However, we still don't know how well many of these apps work to prevent unplanned pregnancies."
For the study, researchers at the Open University reviewed evidence of 18 studies from 13 countries about the use and development of fertility apps.
They analysed the data according to three main themes - fertility and reproductive health tracking, pregnancy planning and pregnancy prevention.
Worryingly, they found that many of these apps seem to have been developed without any specialist input.
The research found that, on the whole, women value apps that are accurate and based on scientific evidence.
But the scientists noted app developers rarely involved health professionals in the design, development or deployment of menstruation and fertility apps.
Just as troublingly, those working on the apps tended not to consult the female users, and failed to account for the way they used and depended on the apps in practice.
Dr Sarah Earle, director of the Open University's Priority Research Area in Health and Wellbeing, said: "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."
She went on to warn that the accuracy of these apps couldn't be depended on.
"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," she said.
"This could be very misleading for women and couples that are trying for a baby."
While there have been studies that have proven the legitimacy of some fertility apps as a means of contraception, the issue, Dr Earle warns, is that not all of them have been designed to include this feature.
Essentially, this means that many women could be using an app in a way that it is not intended to be used.
The study's authors are now calling for further research, discussion and regulation around these apps, and input from health specialists, too.
Dr Earle said: "The involvement of fertility specialists and other health professionals should also be an important aspect of future research and development in this field."
While Dr Diana Mansour advised that, right now, women shouldn't be using the apps as their main port of call.
"If women need to start contraception or get a repeat prescription during the COVID-19 pandemic, I advise them to call their GP or contraceptive clinic to discuss their needs," she said.
"Most GP practices will be able to issue an electronic prescription that women can collect in their nearby pharmacy; other services can supply/post their preferred method.
"Fertility awareness apps have the potential to broaden contraception choice, but at present it's important to treat fertility apps for contraceptive purposes with caution."
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