Is This New Hormone-Free Birth Control Too Good To Be True?

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It's hard to argue with the fact that some major changes are taking place in women's health. For starters, the world has finally realized how much women's health has been ignored and neglected over the years, meaning conditions like endometriosis and PPD are finally getting more attention. We're also seeing so many women standing up for themselves—and to their doctors—by demanding more autonomy when it comes to decisions about their health.

This trend is particularly strong when it comes to birth control; women are asking serious questions about the pill, IUDs, and other hormone-based contraceptive options and their short- and long-term side effects. So many women want more options, which is why a new study—showing that the fertility tracking app, Dot, can be used to prevent pregnancy—is so important.

Are birth control apps the future of contraception?

If your first thought when reading the words "birth control app" is something like WHAT!?—you're definitely not alone. But this new wave of technology is actually pretty legit. The study, conducted at Georgetown University Medical Center's Institute for Reproductive Health (IRH), followed about 700 women for up to 13 cycles to assess the app's ability to prevent pregnancy. They received funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, and it was a prospective trial, meaning it's a study that watches for outcomes—such as pregnancy or the development of a disease—during the study period.

The results, which were published in the European Journal of Contraception and Reproductive Health Care, showed that the app had a 1 percent failure rate for "perfect use" and 5 percent rate for "typical use." The perfect-use effectiveness rate represents how well a contraceptive would work if used exactly as directed. The typical-use effectiveness rate accounts for things like having unprotected sex when the app tells you not to or having to use emergency contraception.

If you're wondering how this app stacks up to other common birth control options, for reference, the "typical use" failure rates are about 0.1 to 0.8 percent for IUDs, 7 percent for birth control pills, and 13 percent for condoms. According to Leslie Heyer, president of Cycle Technologies (the parent company of Dot), this means that "In the real world, people are still able to use Dot correctly and protect themselves from pregnancy.”

How do birth control apps really work?

The logistics of using these birth control apps are pretty simple. You just download it and enter data about your cycle. All the apps are a little different and in some cases, "entering data" means taking your temperature every morning, taking luteinizing hormone (LH) tests to pinpoint ovulation, and/or tracking your period. In the case of Dot, you simply enter your period start and stop dates and then, using a proprietary algorithm—which uses Bayesian statistical analysis (try saying that 10 times fast)—the app determines a user’s risk for pregnancy each day, giving them a "high risk" or "low risk" notification. If it's a "high risk" day, you're instructed to abstain from sex or use a backup form of birth control, like condoms.

According to Victoria Jennings, director and principal investigator at IRH, "This is the first time that researchers have used the established contraceptive-efficacy protocol to study women in real time while they used a fertility app to prevent pregnancy." This means that the study was designed specifically to test Dot just like they would the pill or condoms. "Our rigorous study design also allowed us to understand how women use the app and how they can be encouraged to use it correctly," she explained. Dot seems to stack up when you compare it to other common forms of birth control and has the added bonus of being side-effect-free and completely natural.

Heyer, who went to business school and has a background in marketing, discovered her passion for this field when she was working as a consultant in the space. "I realized how important it is for women to have access to contraception—and how lacking in innovation the space was. Someone needed to turn it on its head. There needed to be something for women who didn't want to use contraception or were concerned about side effects. Heyer imagines this technology increasing access to contraception all over the world. "Especially in developing counties, making sure women have control of their bodies is the first thing we have to do. That means giving them options that meet their needs—not what their doctor wants or what their government wants but what women want." And that's a message we can definitely get behind.

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