If you Google “pregnancy apps,” there’s no shortage of articles with titles such as “10 best pregnancy apps” or “Must-have apps during pregnancy.” According to a 2015 study, 7 percent of the 165,000 available health-related apps were related to women’s health and pregnancy. That’s more than 11,000 apps!
And we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg in healthcare apps’ potential. As more healthcare providers begin to use apps in their practices, as we do in ours, women will begin to expect and demand them. As that happens, we’ll begin to see more high-quality apps that provide better, more accurate information.
"We’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg in healthcare apps’ potential." #digitalhealth via @MedStarWHC
There’s no doubt about it: Pregnancy apps are here to stay. This means healthcare providers need to stay up-to-date on quality apps, and women need to talk with their doctors and be savvy about which apps provide accurate information and which are just for fun.
Tips to choose pregnancy and fertility apps
Simple pregnancy apps send you notifications about your baby’s growth week by week or help you choose a baby name. More complex apps offer help with listening to your baby’s heartbeat or timing your contractions. Before you download an app, ask yourself these three questions:
1. Who developed the app?
There are apps that let you listen to your baby’s heartbeat – if they’re used in conjunction with a home Doppler. But if the app claims that all you need to do is put your phone against your belly and listen, don’t believe it. If you put the phone on your desk, you’ll likely hear the same sound!
This is why it’s important to look at who developed the app. Was a reputable healthcare source involved? For example, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) launched an estimated due date calculator in January 2016. Unlike due date calculators from non-healthcare organizations, this one takes more into account than the first day of your last period.
You wouldn’t go to someone other than your doctor or midwife for pregnancy treatment, so don’t rely on health advice from a non-medical group’s app. And if an app promises to do something that seems impossible, like letting you listen to your baby’s heartbeat, ask your doctor first!
2. How accurate is the app?
A study published in the July 2016 issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology looked at 33 fertility calculator apps and found that only three accurately predicted a woman’s “fertile window.”
If you’re using one of these apps to help you conceive – or avoid getting pregnant – that’s a problem. Fertility is not as simple as these apps would lead you to believe. For one thing, not everyone’s menstrual cycle is the same, so you may not ovulate as consistently as the app’s algorithms would lead you to believe.
Even apps that track babies’ benchmarks week by week may not be entirely accurate. Three apps could tell you three different things about how big your baby is and which organs are forming in a particular week. Was a healthcare professional involved in creating one of them? If so, that one is more likely to be accurate. But don’t forget that your baby may not follow those growth timelines exactly.
You wouldn’t give out your personal health information to just anyone. But that’s what you may be doing when you download and use some pregnancy apps.
Before you download a health app, read the disclaimer so you understand what it will do with your information, including whether it will be shared with third-party sites.
"Before you download a health app, read the disclaimer so you know who will see your health information." via @MedStarWHC
The pregnancy app we use
We use the Babyscripts app to help us monitor our low-risk pregnant patients between appointments.
Women who participate receive a Bluetooth-enabled blood pressure cuff and weight scale. When they take their blood pressure and weigh in, the information is sent to their doctor or midwife. Abnormal results trigger an alert for the doctor, who can then request that you come in.
Some MedStar practices have been using this app for about a year and a half, and we’re seeing good results. In fact, we had one patient whose high blood pressure reading led her doctor to ask her to come in. When she did, we discovered she had preeclampsia, a potentially dangerous complication. Had the app not alerted her doctor to the blood pressure reading, it’s possible the condition may not have been diagnosed until it was advanced.
The other nice thing about this app is that it can be tailored to each practice. For example, if I recommend my patients not travel after 29 weeks, I can put it in the app. Women have told me that it makes them feel like they have a doctor in their pocket.
Not all healthcare apps are the “digital snake oil” some have been made out to be. But we do need to proceed with caution. And the medical community is beginning to work more closely with patients to do that. For instance, the American Medical Association in November 2016 approved principles to promote the use of safe, effective healthcare apps.
If you’re looking for a fun way to pick a name for your baby, go ahead and download that app. But if you’re looking for more in-depth pregnancy information or advice, talk to your doctor or midwife first. They may have their own app for that!