Ovulation Devices and Apps Will Do the Math, but Should You Trust Them?

Ovulation Apps

In the olden days, you had to take your temperature, urinate on a stick, perform other tasks, and write everything in a notebook to find out if you were about to ovulate, but today you can ask your smartphone. By ‘the olden days’, I mean a few years ago. That’s how fast technology is moving. Today, there are a handful of small devices and apps that track factors that cycle in your body using various algorithms. You input various data, such as your menstruation dates as they occur, and temperature on different days at different hours. The devices interface with your smartphone through special apps and range in terms of their capabilities and prices (up to a few hundred dollars). Some are essentially high-tech thermometers that communicate with your phone. Other devices, such as OvaCue, actually analyze samples of your saliva and cervical mucous that you place on a special sensor.

Devices that require fluid samples are looking at hormone levels similar to the take-home fertility tests that have been available for decades, but what’s unique here is the integration of all the factors. Knowing hormone levels and body temperature ranges, and knowing what day and time it is, the algorithms get to know you, and not always just in the biochemical sense. One system, called Clue, tracks data on the user’s mood, for instance, and coordinates those data with the information on hormones and other factors. Another one, called Ovia, is promoted for its incorporation of sleeping and eating information into its calculations.

In all cases, the algorithms are proprietary; each company claims that it has figured out a superior way to crunch the numbers for an accurate prediction of ovulation, and most manufacturers claim accuracies of 99 percent, or thereabout.

What happens if your goal is not to become pregnant, but rather to avoid it? No problem.  If you’re trying to get pregnant, all the apps will tell you to drop whatever you’re doing and go have sex. But with some programs, Natural Cycles for instance, they’ll give you a red or a green light, or something of that nature. It’s based on a conservative calculation that errs on the side of false positives to avoid false negatives. Red light means that there’s a high risk of pregnancy, but since the algorithms adapt, you’ll see more red lights when you first start using the system. Then, when it gets to know you better, more of the red lights that really meant ‘maybe’ are replaced with green lights.

That’s the claim of the company, but this is all very new, so you would be wise to take it with a grain of salt, and use a proven contraceptive as protection, if getting pregnant is really something you want to avoid. There’s also another reason to be careful. As with any product, the companies are motivated by their business needs, which do not necessarily dovetail with science. A system called Conceivable, for instance, boasts that for $199 a month you get not just the technology, but also “3 herbal formulas,” so in this case we are talking about marketers who dabble in the shady realm of the pseudoscientific, multi-billion dollar supplement industry. Enjoy the new technology, but be careful.

David Warmflash
Dr. David Warmflash is a science communicator and physician with a research background in astrobiology and space medicine. He has completed research fellowships at NASA Johnson Space Center, the University of Pennsylvania, and Brandeis University. Since 2002, he has been collaborating with The Planetary Society on experiments helping us to understand the effects of deep space radiation on life forms, and since 2011 has worked nearly full time in medical writing and science journalism. His focus area includes the emergence of new biotechnologies and their impact on biomedicine, public health, and society.

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