How apps and tech are changing women's health
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Dec 15, 2015  |  Vote 0    0

How apps and tech are changing women's health

From period trackers to birth control reminders, apps and tech gadgets are helping modern women manage their health


Period trackers. Fertility apps. Birth control reminders.

In the tech world, women’s health is at the forefront — with hundreds of apps focusing on everything from getting pregnant to detecting breast cancer. Lots of other high-tech products in the works too, from Bluetooth-connected menstrual cups to high-tech pill cases that send an alert to your phone if you skip your birth control.

Not surprisingly, women around the world are embracing it all. Travel writer Natalie Preddie Zamojc, 30, and her husband Mark are trying to have a baby, and Zamojc is using a popular period tracking app — aptly named Period Tracker — to see when she’s most fertile. It gives her a sense of control over a process that’s often based on luck, she says.

“Now, it’ll send me a message being like, “You’ve ovulating!” and then it’s go, go, go,” Zamojc says with a laugh.

As the New York Times reported earlier this year, two period tracking apps alone — GP International’s Period Tracker, the app Zamojc swears by, and Abishkking’s Period Calendar/Tracker — have been downloaded more than 10 million times from just the Android store, based on data from the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics.

Recently, thousands backed a Kickstarter campaign for the Looncup “smart” menstrual cup, raising over $160,000 for the silicone cup that sends fluid volume updates to your phone or Apple Watch through a sensor.

And, according to a 2014 TechCrunch report, women’s health apps raised more money in the previous year “than all other health-focused apps combined.”

It’s a big business — and one that’s empowering for women, says Toronto-based sexual health educator Lyba Spring. “Anything that gives a woman more control over her reproductive health and her fertility… is a good thing,” she says. Certain aspects of women’s health should involve a family doctor, Spring adds — like understanding the changes in cervical mucus, for instance — but for basic health and fertility issues, apps are definitely useful, she says.

Jennifer Aldoretta, CEO of Groove, an American company whose app of the same name helps women track their cycles, was born out of its founder’s own lengthy reproductive health struggles

“My period brought with it horrible cramps,” Aldoretta recalls. “I would vomit from the pain.”

The excruciating cramps started from her first period when she was around 11, forcing Aldoretta to miss school for a few days every month. She went on the pill a few years later but stopped in her mid-20s after realizing a host of other health issues — including severe anxiety, heart palpitations and shortness of breath — seemed linked to her birth control.

Aldoretta started doing her own research on reproductive health and hormones, which led her to develop the Groove app, which she now uses to manage her painful cramps without having to take the pill.

The app, which launched for the iPhone in 2014, allows her to track certain physiological changes that occur throughout your menstrual cycle — such as basal body temperature and cervical fluid secretion — which are both influenced by hormone levels, she says.

“By looking at those two things and see how they changed throughout my cycle, I was able to figure out that I had an imbalance of estrogen and progesterone,” Aldoretta says. “After I saw all that on my chart, I took an actual saliva hormone test and confirmed I’m low in progesterone.”

For Zamojc, one of her favourite features of the Period Tracker app is the social groups, which offer a sense of community, a place to ask other women for advice, and moral support amid fertility frustrations. “You’re walking around seeing pregnant ladies — everywhere — and you’ll comment in the app, “Ahh, super stressed,” and someone will write back, “Yeah, I’ve been there,” Zamojc says.

Apps can definitely be helpful for women, with many offering a “simple, cost-effective way” to prevent, or make possible, a pregnancy, says Dr. Yolanda Kirkham, an obstetrician-gynecologist who works at Women’s College Hospital and St. Joseph’s Health Centre in Toronto.

She’s noticed a rise in the number of her patients using period trackers and other apps, she says, and actually encourages her patients to try them out. Women just need to be smart and research the apps and technology they’re using, Kirkham says, and keep in mind that discussion forums might lead them to false or biased information.

But overall, she’s thrilled technology is out there to help women understand their own bodies. “I always think it’s fabulous when women are taking an interest in their own health care,” says Kirkham.

Women on the pill make up nearly half of all unplanned pregnancies. With that in mind, a six-person team of University of Toronto graduate students has been developing Pillsy, a smart pouch and app that knows if someone takes their birth control pill — and reminds them when they don’t. We chatted with two of the team members, product manager Courtney Smith and co-founder and CTO Valentin Peretroukhin, about how they’re hoping this new tech can help women.

How will Pillsy work?

CS: Pillsy is a smart pill pouch and an associated app. Together, they help women consistently take the birth control pill. The pouch has sensors that alert the app whenever a woman takes a pill out of the pouch. There are also reminders in the app, but if a woman has already taken her pill, there won’t be an intrusive reminder. There’s no manual input about when you’ve taken your pill — the pouch tracks it for you. It’s the best solution out there right now.

VP: We’ve had a number of women come to us and say they’re anxious and not on the birth control pill, but if they had the Pillsy pouch and app, they’d trust themselves more to go on the birth control pill.

When will it hit the market?

CS: We finished the prototype and we’re going to be starting beta trials. Our early users will have access in the near future and we’re hoping to release it publicly in December next year with a Kickstarter campaign in December 2016. We have more than a hundred early adopters to start the project.

Where did the idea for Pillsy stem from?

CS: Originally, we started with three members — Tony Zhang, Valentin, and Eric Ma. They decided to start a company for women.

VP: I was one of the three guys. Birth control is more than just a female issue. Basically, we’re tackling that segment of the medication adherence problem. Younger women are more open to technology, so we thought it was great to focus on.

It’s a unique product — any other hopes for it?

CS: We’re hoping to create a community of women who can come together to discuss issues of birth control. And we’re hoping to alleviate some of the stress in relationships — on the women’s side, and the men’s side — and obviously avoid unplanned pregnancies. Birth controls are extremely effective, but only if they’re taken on time every time.

Toronto Star

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