Lack of validation for mobile reproductive health apps unacceptable

When it comes to developing mobile health apps, there is an unwritten best practice: the app must meet a user's needs and hopefully, provide expert, validated knowledge.

But such a scenario is not unfolding when it comes to reproductive apps. Helping women manage menstrual cycles, achieve or avoid pregnancy, and track fertility health issues all are valuable and important healthcare issues. Yet as new research reveals, there's a big black hole as such apps are going ignored in terms of review, assessment and professional validation. 

The study, which we report on this week, illustrates that apps for tracking women's reproductive health in the market lack evaluation and endorsement. As one of the authors explains in an email with FierceMobileHealthcare, an app search revealed 262 unique apps; of the five articles discovered regarding reproductive health, just one offered qualitative analysis of select menstrual cycle and fertility tracking apps. None of the remaining four focused specifically on menstrual cycle or fertility tracking apps.

Additionally, just 12 percent--16 apps--of the 262 boasted health expert involvement; just one had official approval, the stamp of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, as a fertility app. More disconcerting is that 22 percent, 28 apps, contained an error impacting functionality.

None have been created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the National Institutes of Health, explains researcher Michelle Moglia, who believes the scenario has led to lower quality apps that provide misinformation, such as incorrect predictions for ovulation. There also are apps that discuss timing of intercourse to achieve pregnancy, but there is no scientific evidence to support those claims.

That's almost unfathomable.

The big concern here, as Moglia explains, is that when it comes to reproductive health, not all women are equal. She notes that almost all apps default to a 28-day menstrual cycle with ovulation occurring at day 14. For some women, this will be fine. For others, however, it will not give accurate predictions without adjusting the settings in the app. In some apps, this is an option. But in others, it isn't.

Also, if a female is using a birth control method correctly, that changes their menstrual cycle, meaning they will no longer be able to--or need to--rely on the app's fertility or menstrual cycle predictions.

"I think reproductive health professionals need to make time to review them," Moglia said. "We are the ones with the medical knowledge and training who can figure out which apps are accurate and not. We also can draw from the experiences that our clients share with us when they use these apps."

And she's absolutely right. While there are hurdles likely in determining who or what should handle needed evaluation, it's not an insurmountable challenge. There are plenty of options: federal agencies obviously, as well as many medical and healthcare organizations and accredited groups. - Judy (@JudyMottl and @FierceHealthIT)