Period-tracking apps, which help users log symptoms like menstrual cramping and headaches, as well as the length of their bleed, are extremely popular. Over 100 million people worldwide use period-tracking apps, according to data from Bloomberg in 2019, and Apple recently introduced its own native period tracker, called Cycle Tracking, in iOS 13.
For many people, it's a great boon to have their data around menstruation in one place, and can help them predict future periods or ovulation cycles. However, some medical experts are concerned about occurrences in which apps have suggested users could have health conditions like polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) based on their data — and that pre-diagnosis has turned out to be incorrect. There are definite benefits to using menstrual tracking, experts tell Bustle, but an app shouldn't be a replacement for going to the doctor.
Two popular period-tracking apps, Flo and Clue, introduced new features on their apps this year that are meant to analyze user data for symptoms of health conditions like PCOS. "Flo can help you detect PCOS early!", the Flo website currently reads. But according to a New York Times investigation, "the apps did not conduct high-level clinical studies to determine the accuracy of their health risk assessments or the potential for unintended consequences such as overdiagnosis." One woman told The New York Times that she thought it was "irresponsible" of apps to make these suggestions, given that a potential diagnosis can cause avoidable stress and anxiety. Both Flo and Clue told The New York Times that their apps were meant to be pre-diagnoses, or suggestions to see a doctor, and that they are continually refining their app mechanisms to give more serviceable information; the apps also give disclaimers that those suggestions "should not be construed as diagnoses," the Times found.
Misdiagnosis of a condition like PCOS, which can cause infertility, can have a mental health impact, which is why it's critical that people who use apps for health information be mindful of the limitations of these apps. "With any type of hard news, it’s important to have the right support in place before receiving it, as well as a plan of action for the next step," mental health counselor Heidi McBain tells Bustle. Having a potential diagnosis appear out of the blue on your smartphone takes away those support mechanisms, and may leave users reeling — particularly if they then go to a doctor and discover that they're fine.
However, that's not to say that period-tracking apps aren't valuable. Menstrual health trackers are a great tool to use in conjunction with your doctor, experts tell Bustle. "There are many reasons why keeping accurate data on one’s menstrual cycle is beneficial," Felice Gersh, M.D., an OB/GYN, founder and director of the Integrative Medical Group of Irvine, and author of PCOS SOS, tells Bustle. "Being prepared for the onset of bleeding is always useful, and if one has menstrual cramps or heavy periods, it allows one to be proactive with anti-inflammatory medication or supplements." That information can also help if you have a condition like endometriosis, where symptoms like abdominal pain can intensify during menstruation.
Importantly, Dr. Gersh says, the data gathered by an app may lead to a diagnosis by a physician. "For people with irregular cycles, keeping track of them with an app can make a doctor’s evaluation far more effective," she says. "Monitoring for symptomatic and cycle-control improvement is highly valuable." Their doctors can use the data to track symptoms and the effectiveness of therapies.
Period tracking tools are continually evolving. However, if you do receive health information from your menstrual tracking app, it's worth checking everything with your doctor. "Menstrual tracking devices create a wonderful opportunity for data collection," Dr. Gersh tells Bustle. At this point in time, according to experts, that data is best used with your doctor to give the greatest possible clarity.
Heidi McBain, LMFT, LPC, PMH-C, mental health counselor