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How Digital Health is Changing the Landscape of Reproductive Health

Technology has no doubt changed the way we do things. As women in today’s busy society, we use technology to simplify everyday processes, to remind us of where we need to be and what we need to do, and even to help us keep our health in check. With female technology — also known as Femtech — on the rise, access to healthcare is available at our fingertips.

But technology has its faults. We have to wonder — are all of the apps simplifying the process of healthcare or making it even harder to get the answers we need? Let’s take a look at how digital health is changing the landscape of reproductive health and how we can approach the overwhelming wealth of apps available.

How Femtech is Changing Women’s Healthcare

Digital health tools focused on women’s health are becoming increasingly popular. In fact, the most popular health and fitness app in the United States in 2015 was a period-tracking app, according to an Applause report, and a few more women’s health apps rounded out the top 10.

The shift to value-based care is driving digital health innovation. In an industry historically dominated by men, Femtech startups are starting to receive more funding and representation in the media than previous years. Investors are excited about the personalized experience digital tools offer in helping women manage their health, as well as the high engagement these apps are receiving from consumers.

With an array of services available, technology can help women with everything from preventing pregnancy to conceiving a child. The apps don’t stop with periods and ovulation, though. Women can also monitor their breast health, chat with mental health providers, and ensure a healthy pregnancy with the variety of digital health services available. Femtech covers it all.

And women are turning to it to get their questions answered. Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine conducted a study of 1,000 women, ages 18-40, in the United States, revealing important insights about how women understand their reproductive health. Physicians and websites were found to be the top sources of information, though only 50% claimed to have discussed their reproductive health with their medical provider. One-third of participants admitted to visiting their reproductive health care provider less than once a year or never. The study also found that women rank pregnancy-focused websites as go-to sources for information regarding their overall health.

The data reveals that women are relying on technology for various reproductive health concerns — including as a form of birth control — but is digital health the best avenue for seeking answers? Should women trust technology when it comes to reproductive health? Let’s look at the pros and cons.

Advantages of Reproductive Health Apps

More women are working full-time than ever before and therefore, leading busier lifestyles. Femtech aims to provide tools that help women manage their health more effectively.

With that in mind, here are a few advantages that using digital health to track your reproductive health offers:

  • Accessibility — Getting in to see your doctor isn’t always easy with a busy schedule. Not to mention, many appointments lead to you waiting around for what may be a five-minute conversation with your provider. Technology makes it possible for women to monitor their health at home and converse with their providers on their own time. iSono Health, for example, is a compact ultrasound device and app that allows women to regularly self-monitor their breast health at home. The user carries out a scan and the software processes the results. The doctor then receives the images and sends the patient feedback through the app. Women have access to experts and providers through digital devices, and the data shows they’re often willing to go there before making a doctor appointment.
  • Affordability — Healthcare is not affordable for everyone, but digital tools make it easy for women to get the information they need and speak with a provider without paying a premium. Maven is a digital clinic that aims to make health practitioners more accessible to women who may not be able to afford healthcare. The app allows women to video chat with healthcare providers including doctors, nutritionists, gynecologists, midwives, psychologists and more. The app’s forum provides education and a way to connect with the community to share experiences. As women get a better understanding of the what they need before they do make a doctor’s appointment, they can reduce costs of unnecessary treatments, as well.
  • Awareness — The rise of Femtech opens the discussion of female and reproductive health. Many startups are aiming to help make the conversation more public rather than private. John Plackal, the founder of Maya — an app that helps women track their menstrual and physiological health — aims to increase the app’s presence in India where menstrual health tends to be a taboo topic. With information and screening more accessible, women can detect issues early on. In addition, as more women get on board with tracking their information in regards to reproductive health, researchers have more and more data to work with. Women are taking part in the ongoing research that aims to provide them with even more resources.

While digital health provides various benefits, women need to be aware of the drawbacks, as well. Devices and apps provide plenty of resources that provide accessibility, affordability, and awareness but there are some things to be concerned about when you track your reproductive health digitally.

Does the convergence of digital and reproductive health have a downside?

For many of us, technology is both a blessing and a curse. While it generally simplifies things, there are more opportunities for error, in terms of privacy and your actual health. Here’s what you should be cautious of when using digital health services:

  • Accuracy and flexibility - In a University of Washington study, many women reported disappointment with period-tracking apps because of the inability to customize their results. If their periods weren’t regular, women found that the apps weren’t accurate or flexible enough to consistently predict their cycle. Many women are using these apps as a form of birth control, looking for predictions on when they may be ovulating and having sex accordingly. Whether women are using period-tracking apps to better their chances of conceiving or trying to avoid it, lack of accuracy should be a major concern.
  • Privacy — Since women need to get answers, they’re generally pretty trusting in handing over their personal information. With any form of technology, there’s always the concern of privacy. Last year, fertility-tracking app Glow had to warn users of a privacy loophole that could expose personal data. Consumer Reports were able to access highly personal information in the app, such as users’ sex lives, history of miscarriages, abortions, and more.
  • Overwhelm — With so many apps out there, navigating the market can be overwhelming. Not all services make sense for every woman. Lack of personal understanding about which services are best for you can lead you down a wrong path.
  • Trust — Marketing and presentation for digital health brands can be misleading to consumers. With every app boasting certain claims and statistics, it can be hard to know which brands you can trust. For example, some fertility-tracking apps, like Natural Cycles, have been given the official approval as a method of contraception and market themselves as such. But being classified as a medical device doesn't guarantee the app will effectively prevent pregnancy.

Is Digital Health Available to Everyone?

Technology prides itself on making things more accessible but apps aren’t going to do any good for women who don’t have access to a smartphone or the internet. In that sense, there is a disconnect between the problems of those who need help and the tech solutions being offered. Health advocates want to see more digital health initiatives for lower-income people not only to be fair but because they’re more likely to have those chronic illnesses that are expensive to treat.

Efforts are underway to improve the health of low-income Americans with the use of technology. For example, Text4Baby is a free text-messaging service for pregnant women and new moms that offers information (in English and Spanish) about prenatal care, labor and delivery, breastfeeding, developmental milestones, and immunizations — all of which are timed to the baby's due date. According to CNN, Text4Baby has reached nearly 1 million women since starting in 2010, and more than half of them reported yearly incomes of less than $16,000.

Efforts like these are gaining traction largely because of the growing use of mobile phones. Investors are becoming more interested in digital-health initiatives for lower-income people as well because so many of them are popping up. While digital health may not be as accessible to everyone right now, it looks to be in the future for lower-income people.

With the data we contribute to Femtech, we can only hope that services become more helpful and accurate, with continued efforts to improve the security of our personal information. Whether you’re using a period-tracking app, looking for fertility services, or counting your baby’s kicks in the womb, remember to use technology with caution. When it comes to your health, getting clarity and assistance from sources you trust is most important.


Bio: Michelle Chalkey is a writer and blogger from sunny Arizona. She aims to help women manage anxiety and overcome negative body image with her blog, Naturally Ever After. Keep up with her writing by visiting her website or Facebook page.

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