As the medical field makes strides in women’s health, more information has become widely available to people in different ways. This includes mobile apps, of which there are a variety of options. According to a 2022 study in Women’s Health that surveyed users’ experiences with period tracking apps, 7% of the health apps available in the App Store focus on women’s health and pregnancy.¹
With so many apps and so much information available, there are potential benefits and risks, particularly in a newer industry like app development. How accurate are these tracking apps? How secure are the data people provide the apps? And how comfortable are people with providing data? Recently, studies have investigated the effectiveness of these apps, what happens to the data stored in them, and how users have rated their experiences. What have they found?
Users of menstrual period tracking don’t always find the results the app provides to be accurate. In the aforementioned Women’s Health study, 330 participants gave complete responses to survey questions about their experience with their app. When asked whether their period arrived earlier or later than the app predicted, over half responded yes for each; 54.9% reported their period starting earlier than predicted, while 72.1% reported their period starting later. These experiences left participants with varying degrees of surprise, stress, and concern.
One potential explanation as to why apps struggle with accuracy is whether or not health care professionals are involved in the development of the app. A 2023 study in Internet Interventions examined smartphone apps that focus on menstrual experiences and how they work for, among other things, managing symptoms and pain.² What the researchers found in their study of 119 apps in the App Store was that while their quality was overall acceptable, only 14% involved health care professionals and researchers in the development stage.
Perhaps the most discussed element of period tracking apps is data privacy. With many questions about where the data stored in these apps goes, particularly after the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision to overturn Roe v Wade, how do users feel?
In 2022, the Digital Lab at Consumer Reports evaluated a number of period tracker apps that had been recommended in particular for their privacy efforts.³ This came in the wake of a similar evaluation in 2020, which found that all 5 period tracker apps they examined stored users’ data in a cloud and did not provide any guarantee that this data would not be shared with a third party. The report recommended apps like Drip, Euki, and Periodical, which stored data locally and did not allow third-party trackers.
Data privacy is a concern for many app users; however, not all of them share that concern. Many of the participants in the Women’s Health study reacted with indifference to the notion of data privacy, with some saying they already anticipate their data being shared when using an app.¹
Inaccurate data or an inability to provide the necessary content for users can have detrimental effects on their mental health. Not providing effective menstrual pain content from health care providers provides no benefit to users experiencing pain, who are at a heightened risk for experiencing depression and anxiety.² This is a problem for app users looking for information; 91.2% of participants in the Women’s Health study said part of why they used their app was to understand symptoms, changes, and concerns about their menstrual cycle.¹
Many respondents also expressed anxiety based on incorrect assessments of when their period would start. For example, much of the stress from participants whose periods came earlier than expected was based on them trying to conceive. Those whose period came later than predicted experienced a lot of anxiety for the opposite reason. Some participants even noted that the stress they experienced likely only delayed their periods further.
Are There Positive Experiences?
Despite many concerns, there have also been participants in studies that claimed to have positive or indifferent experiences with menstrual apps. While many participants felt stressed and frustrated as a result of their experiences, many also experienced relief, feeling more prepared and in control of their menstrual experiences.
This article originally appeared on Clinical Advisor
1. Broad A, Biswakarma R, Harper JC. A survey of women’s experiences of using period tracker applications: attitudes, ovulation prediction and how the accuracy of the app in predicting period start dates affects their feelings and behaviours. Womens Health (Lond). 2022 Jan-Dec;18:17455057221095246. doi: 10.1177/17455057221095246. PMID: 35465788; PMCID: PMC9047811.
2. Trépanier LCM, Lamoureux É, Bjornson SE, Mackie C, Alberts NM, Gagnon MM. Smartphone apps for menstrual pain and symptom management: a scoping review. Internet Interv. 2023 Jan 30;31:100605. doi: 10.1016/j.invent.2023.100605. PMID: 36761398; PMCID: PMC9905939.
3. Roberts C. Period tracker apps and privacy. Consumer Reports. https://www.consumerreports.org/health-privacy/period-tracker-apps-privacy-a2278134145/. Updated August 30, 2022. Accessed March 21, 2023.