Researchers say the apps can help women understand their menstrual cycle, but they also advise users to get more information from their doctor.
Women commonly rely on gynecologist visits to monitor their reproductive health.
But fertility awareness method (FAM) apps are an increasingly popular way to track the monthly changes that a woman is more or less likely to become pregnant.
Just how effective are they? And how might sharing this intimate information online affect your privacy?
Researchers working with Stanford University in California analyzed 200,000 users of two FAM apps, Sympto and Kindara.
Both apps use the symptothermal method to identify periods of fertility during the menstrual cycle with recordings of cervical fluid, body temperature, and other physical symptoms.
The researchers concluded the average duration and range of the follicular phase that begins the menstrual cycle and ends at ovulation were larger than previously reported.
Their models showed only 24 percent of ovulations occurred at days 14 to 15 of the cycle.
However, the data also confirmed that both duration and range of the luteal phase (the latter part of the menstrual cycle) was in line with other studies.
“Ovulation tracking apps can be an excellent guide for women who are either trying to get pregnant or avoid pregnancy. But they don’t work for everyone,” Dr. Joshua Hurwitz, a reproductive endocrinologist and infertility specialist with Reproductive Medical Associates of Connecticut, told Healthline.
“A typical patient for whom they don’t work well is anyone who doesn’t have regular ovulation. The more irregular a woman’s period is, the less the apps are helpful,” he said.
Hurwitz, who’s board-certified in both OB-GYN and reproductive endocrinology, adds the apps can help women learn about their body and their cycle.
“But the consequences of an unintended pregnancy is not worth the risk of using them exclusively for birth control,” he said.
Dr. Tara Budinetz, a reproductive endocrinology and infertility specialist with Abington Reproductive Medicine/St. Luke’s University Health in Pennsylvania, says fertility apps aren’t always effective in accurately translating data because everyone’s cycle is different.
“If you don’t fall into that normal range and age, the app could be wrong at predicting ovulation and your cycles,” she told Healthline. “As a physician, I am able to help patients understand whether the fertility app is accurately predicting the fertile window and ovulation through confirmatory blood work.”
Budinetz says an important benefit to FAMs is helping women be more aware of their body and knowing if there’s a problem.
“For example, if your cycles are routinely 30 days and now occurring every 50 days, this should prompt you to see an OB-GYN for further evaluation,” she said.
“But the ‘calendar’ or ‘rhythm’ method, in which a couple avoids intercourse around ovulation is, overall, not very successful at avoiding pregnancy compared to other methods, like birth control pills, IUDs, and even condoms,” she said.
Budinetz adds that for women who are unable to take any form of birth control, an app can aid in determining when to avoid intercourse.
“Although it’s not the best way or the most accurate way, it’s better than doing nothing,” she said.
Hurwitz nots there are risks if an app isn’t used properly.
“If a woman is not using the app correctly, she could have an increased risk of pregnancy if she’s trying to avoid pregnancy or waste precious time if she is,” he said.
“Every app is different in terms of what types of data are entered. If you’re entering personal identifying information, such as your name, phone number, address, birth date, or email address, this information could be misused by third parties,” Budinetz said.
She cautions that fertility apps don’t meet the same privacy standards as a physician practice since they’re not all HIPAA compliant.
“Fertility apps don’t meet medical professional standards, so there is no guarantee that data won’t be stolen or misused,” Hurwitz said.
“It doesn’t matter how it’s misused. Any protected health information is private and should never be shared in any identifiable way at any time,” he said.
“Data privacy is incredibly important to Ovia Health,” Gina Nebesar, Ovia’s chief of product, told Healthline.
“Our users are our number one priority. We want to help them grow their families and have the essential health support they need at their fingertips. That’s why personal health data is never shared with any advertisers or any social media sites,” she said.
Nebesar notes that Ovia is a HIPAA-compliant and HITRUST-certified company.
“This means we maintain the highest possible standard for data privacy,” she said. “This is the same regulation that medical professionals are required to follow.”
Ida Tin, CEO and co-founder of the female health app Clue, says her company is transparent when it comes to providing information to their customers.
“We only share data of a noncommercial nature with academic institutions to advance research into female health. We respect user privacy and, for us, it’s important to build a relationship based on trust. While we collaborate with universities and researchers, these aren’t commercial collaborations. The data shared can’t be traced to a specific user,” she said.
Researchers say that FAMs, while increasingly popular, aren’t the most accurate way to track monthly changes in fertility.
Experts confirm that medical professionals are still the most reliable source of information for women looking to become or avoid becoming pregnant.
While there are privacy concerns related to sharing information with FAM apps, companies are taking action to ensure the security of intimate information shared with their particular apps.