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Pregnancy test in woman's hands, face not shown.
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No more whispers

Source: Corbis

Breaking Health Taboos

Your Uterus: There's an App for That

Why you should care

Because the cushy technologies used to plan pregnancies are the same ones that can help women worldwide avoid unwanted ones.

This is a nice surprise. After years of clunky devices and old-school techniques, we’re finally seeing some innovation in one of the most stagnant sub-components of healthcare: reproductive health technology. Now, whether it comes to planning or preventing pregnancy, there really might just be an app for that. Or a few of them.

All together, this information can help women map everything from pre-menstrual stressors to peak fertility.

On the horizon are a number of deceptively simple apps that can track a woman’s entire menstrual cycle through a combination of self-reported data and some hardware innovations, drawing on standard ovulation testing tech, not unlike taking a pregnancy test. All together, this information can help women map everything from pre-menstrual stressors to peak fertility.

They’ve got some serious design flair, too. Hold the pink, the furry, the flowers. This is a style that treats the issue seriously, and as a medical issue that isn’t restricted to just women.

Clue is an app from a German startup that was released in July. It’s a sleek, free app interface for iPhones (Android coming soon). Women can self-report their own menstrual data, for instance, noting some light spotting or painful cramps. Clue crunches the data to predict individual women’s cycles, from PMS to ovulation, and shows it in a pretty circular layout or on a calendar. Though there’s a disclaimer on the site now that women shouldn’t be using Clue for contraception, co-founder Ida Tin, imagines a future where women can go pill-free in favor of the app. For now, Clue trades in the data game, promising women a chance to self-educate and know more about their own cycle, which, they remind us, is “not a clock.”

Then there’s Glow, the latest from PayPal’s Max Levchin. Glow came out in August on the same day it announced $6 million in funding, led by Silicon Valley powerhouse Andreesen Horowitz. Also a free iPhone app, Glow takes self-reported data and pings couples with daily reminders like, “Woohoo! You’re ovulating,” or “Don’t forget to take your temperature this morning.”

What’s new is the idea that information about the totality of a woman’s cycle can and should be used for something beyond just planning pregnancy.

Pregnant woman facing camera,  with only hands on her tummy showing

Source: Gallery Stock

It takes a wide-angled approach to reproductive health, reminding women to stay active and pointing out their most fertile windows. Clearly, Levchin and Co. aren’t satisfied with just gathering small data. They’ve also created Glow First, a non-profit that lets couples facing infertility pool their money (at $50/month for up to 10 months) to save on treatment options – in exchange for couples remaining active on a treatment log. Call it a better way to recruit for medical studies than ads on the sides of bus stations.

Ovulation-aware technology is old news for women who are trying to conceive, but what’s new is the idea that information about the totality of a woman’s cycle can and should be used for something beyond just planning pregnancy. That information, in the hands of women without access to stable birth control, might mean the difference between an unplanned family and a career.

Clue also allows women to self-gather data on mood and other health factors usually considered secondary in a conversation about periods. When apps like these meet their behavioral health cousins (like, a brand new research door swings wide open, bringing together different kinds of health data in new combinations – and that’s something important to watch for.

When apps like these meet their behavioral health cousins, a brand new research door swings wide open.

One crucial question haunting all this medical innovation is how to get it to scale beyond iPhone users, a relatively privileged group. After all, American birth control woes pale in comparison to access in Latin America, much of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Health tech is in the middle of a transition, from mere tracking and recording to interventions.

But the biggest barrier in health tech, argues a McKinsey report on the subject, has been managing patient privacy concerns. While the industry plays catch-up in the data game, opt-in technologies like apps can push things ahead.

Meaning that one day soon, the information we’ve taken from women with iPhones can build into research that makes a global reproductive rights revolution – one that doesn’t depend on expensive drugs – imaginable.

Now that’s something to glow about.

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Meet The Author Sanjena Sathian

Sanjena Sathian has an obsessive relationship with books, politics and instant noodles. You can find her downing espresso and ranting, on a good day. She talks very rapidly and apologizes if that's unsettling.

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