There are quite a number of approved methods of birth control that include pills, condoms, vaginal shields, diaphragms, and implants. Now, for the first time ever, a smartphone app has been certified as a method of birth control, at least in the European Union.
The best part of this story is that the app was created by a Higgs Boson physicist who had worked on the Large Hadron Collider. ZME Science says that when the collider finished its first run in 2012, Elina Berglund was thrilled, but she remembers thinking, “It’s impossible to top that, ” So she decided to try something different.
Relying on her own personal experience, Berglund, who had been relying on a hormonal birth control implant for 10 years, decided to give it up and try an alternative method. In her research, she discovered there were already several apps available, but they didn’t seem to be good enough – so she decided to make her own.
When she and her husband launched the Natural Cycles app in 2014 in Sweden, Berglund says it wasn’t that much of a jump from her previous work. “Instead of looking for the Higgs particle, you’re looking at women’s temperatures and fertility data, which is a lot of fun,” she says.
Berglund was scientific in her research, conducting two clinical studies with over 4,000 women before publishing her results in 2016 in the European Journal of Contraception & Reproductive Health Care.
The Natural Cycles App
Natural Cycles is basically a mobile-based app that is used in combination with a conventional basal thermometer to identify ovulation and, hence, the fertile window. The app requires that the woman enters a precise body-temperature measurement first thing every morning, taken with a highly reliable basal thermometer.
Details of menstruation also need to be entered. On days when the chance of getting pregnant is high, a red light will indicate either abstaining from intercourse or using some form of birth control. Conversely, a green light indicates the woman is supposedly safe from the risk of getting pregnant.
A tech-age way of doing natural birth control
As Dr. Paula Castaño, an OB-GYN at Columbia University says, tracking a woman’s fertility is not new. She told NPR.org that women have been tracking their periods forever.
“We’ve just had to use initially paper calendars, and then calendars on our phones, and ultimately now specific apps that can help us do that.” Castano also notes that there are over 1,000 apps for tracking a woman’s menstrual cycle, and they are used for a variety of reasons.
“It could be you just want to know when is my next period going to come, and is that going to coincide with my vacation, or can I use it to help avoid pregnancy or plan for a pregnancy,” Castaño says.
Dr. Nathaniel DeNicola, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at The George Washington University’s School of Medicine & Health Sciences says the app is nothing more than the tech-age way of doing natural family planning, “which has been around for generations,” according to Live Science.
He also questions the success rate touted by Natural Cycles as being “unrealistically high.” He points to the study published in 2016 that concluded the failure rate was only 0.5 percent. But the app’s “perfect use rate,” meaning it applies only to people who use the app perfectly, following the directions to the letter every day, is misleading, DeNicola said.
That perfect use rate is “probably the last number that should be out there, because the data really isn’t close to supporting that” for typical users, DeNicola said.
The bottom line on the app can be summed up in this way – In the U.S., health and medicine apps really aren’t regulated by the FDA. This means that the safety, expectations or anything else that the consumer is counting on should be countered with the advice, “Buyer Beware.”
“We should be using this new technology,” DeNicola said, “but using it carefully.”