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Which smartphone apps are best birth control pill reminders?

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Many of us rely on smartphones to remind us of appointments and events. A problem with oral contraceptives is that they don’t work if they are not taken. Apps are available to jog a woman’s memory to take her daily pill. However, some smartphone apps are smarter than others. A new study evaluated the effectiveness of a variety of smartphone apps and defined the features that increased their effectiveness. The findings were published in the June issue of the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology by researchers at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio.

The goal of the study was to systematically evaluate English-language smartphone apps currently available in order to determine which would most effectively promote consistent oral contraceptive use. The investigators conducted a search of official mobile phone application platforms were searched using the terms “birth control,” “the pill,” and “contraception.” For each app, the investigators collected the following information: healthcare professionals’ involvement in application development, download (purchase) cost, average user rating, reminder method(s) used, safeguards in place to minimize the chance of a user missing an alarm, and whether the reminder application worked as advertised. They identified 39 oral contraceptive reminder apps. Three apps (7.7%) documented a healthcare professional’s involvement in application development. The download cost ranged from free to $3.99. The average user rating was 3.4 out of 5. The methods of reminder included: sound (31 apps; 79%), vibration (25 apps; 64%), popup (19 apps; 49%), and/or light-emitting diode notification (20; 51%). Additional features to prevent missing a pill were: snooze reminders (16 apps; 41%), required acknowledgment before the notice would clear from the display (67%); and audio alarm that permitted the reminder notice to override the phone’s silent mode setting (20 apps; 65%). Eleven apps (28%) contained all of these safeguards. Seven of the applications (18%) did not function when installed.

The authors concluded that smartphone reminder applications may be useful as backup oral contraceptive reminder methods. However they cautioned that, because of the potential to miss an alarm and the lack of appropriate safeguards, Smartphone apps should not be relied on as the sole reminder to take a daily birth control pill. They noted that oral contraceptive users could benefit from recommendations from healthcare professionals about the highest performing applications.

Take home message:

It would be best to select a birth control pill reminder app that contains most or all of the features mentioned by the author. Consulting with a healthcare professional regarding which app to select is s good one; however, many healthcare professionals will not know which ones are best. Reading reviews by other users of a specific product can be helpful, but some reviews may be biased. If a free app is full-featured, that may be a good choice; however, it is better to spend a few dollars to obtain a reliable product than use a free one that doesn’t work well.

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