When we think of birth control we think of pills and shots, patches and implants. Many also think of the unwanted physical side effects, or the fact that such methods of hormonal birth control aren't in line with their religious beliefs or their desire to live free from pharmaceuticals. There's pretty much as many personal reasons not to take birth control as there are to take it.
But the newest contraceptive approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is different, and doesn't have the side effects or risks because it doesn't go on or in a woman's body. It just goes on her phone.
It's an app, and it's the first of its kind to receive FDA approval to be marketed as a method of contraception to prevent pregnancy.
The app, Natural Cycles, directs users to take their basal body temperature with a certified two decimal basal thermometer (they're more sensitive than standard household thermometers) every morning and track that info along with their menstrual cycles. The app monitors the temperatures fluctuations along with cycle timing and alerts users to their most fertile days, and can therefore be used to plan, as well as avoid, pregnancies.
It's similar to the old-school fertility awareness method, but without having to draw your own chart and with the extra assistance of an algorithm designed by a physicist and backed by three clinical studies. It's a very high tech solution to natural family planning.
"Consumers are increasingly using digital health technologies to inform their everyday health decisions, and this new app can provide an effective method of contraception if it's used carefully and correctly," Dr. Terri Cornelison, the assistant director for the health of women in the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health, said in a media release. "But women should know that no form of contraception works perfectly, so an unplanned pregnancy could still result from correct usage of this device."
Indeed, the app was reported to officials in Sweden earlier this year after after 37 women experiencing unwanted pregnancies told medical providers they were using the app for birth control.
"An unwanted pregnancy is, of course, very unfortunate and we deeply care every time one of our users becomes pregnant unplanned," the company said at the time. "As our user base increases, so will the number of unplanned pregnancies coming from Natural Cycles users. This is an arithmetic truth applicable to all contraceptive methods."
According to Dr. Daniela Caprara, a staff physician in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Humber River Hospital in Toronto, the app's success rate is actually not bad at all when compared with other methods of birth control. "The fact that this app says it's 93% effective is quite good, but that's only assuming people are meeting the standard model for ovulating at the same time every month and they're using it correctly," she told Global News.
"Overall, she says fertility awareness (or the rhythm method) is about 75% effective, while the birth control pill, patch and ring are 93 to 95% effective — when used properly; used improperly, these methods are only about 85% reliable. Hormonal and copper IUDs are roughly 99% effective," Global News reports.
So how effective is Natural Cycles for women who have recently been pregnant? We asked the company, and a spokesperson told Motherly, via email, that the app won't be giving new mamas a green light until the first ovulation is detected.
"For women who have just had a baby, the app will only indicate red days until they start to ovulate again. They may find Natural Cycles helpful to keep track of when they start ovulating. As this occurs, the algorithm will determine a woman's daily fertility by analyzing changes in basal temperature and identify green days, when it is safe to have unprotected sex, or red days, when women should use condoms or abstain from sex to prevent a pregnancy. The algorithm is sensitive to subtle patterns in a woman's cycle – so if it sees something unexpected (such as a higher or lower than expected temperature), it will err on the side of caution and give a red day," the spokesperson explained.
Priced at $95.99 USD for a yearly plan, the app isn't inexpensive, and, unlike many hormonal methods of birth control, it's not (yet) covered by insurance. When asked if that's on the horizon, a spokesperson for the company told Motherly, "it is very early days as we have only just secured FDA clearance in the US, however, we will certainly explore all available options should the need arise."
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