Debating Whether Smart Tampons Are A Smart Choice
Most people look at a tampon and see a cotton plug with a string attached. A small number of people look at a tampon and see opportunity.
Smart tampons are a new trend in medicine and can refer to tampons either hooked up to the Internet of Things or tampons that can monitor health in increments on a path towards quantum self.
But are smart tampons really useful, or are they examples of technological overreach? There’s a good chance that smart tampons will end up providing data that are neither relevant nor actionable.
The my.Flow Tampon Monitor
This smart tampon consists of a long tail that connects to a monitor by means of a medical-grade conductive thread. The monitor can clip to a waistband or underwear and connects to a smartphone or other Bluetooth-enabled device. The monitor can also function as a keychain.
The my.Flow app can be configured to send text messages to the user indicating how full the tampon is. These alerts can thus be used to make decisions about when to change a tampon and avoid leakage. The my.Flow app can also analyze and provide data on menstrual flow.
The makers of my.Flow claim that their product will help relieve “menstrual anxiety” and let a woman know exactly when to change her tampon so as not to soil her clothes.
Aside from their website, a brief video and secondary-source reporting done by various publications covering my.Flow, there is little information on this device. Unlike drugs, it's not necessary for the makers of these plugs to do clinical research.
NextGen Jane Tampon
Like my.Flow, NextGen Jane is a startup that is developing a smart tampon. And like my.Flow, we mostly know about NextGen Jane through secondary-source reporting, with the invention being covered in Marie Claire, the Harvard Gazette and The New York Times. The website for NextGen Jane provides little info on the actual product. However, the product purportedly entered clinical trials in the spring of 2016, so we may learn more about it in the near future.
Apparently, the NextGen Jane smart tampon would enable blood to be extracted from a tampon and tested for a variety of biomarkers indicative of sexually transmitted infections, endometriosis, reproductive status, and cancer (think uterine, cervical and ovarian).
A Case Against Smart Tampons
They say that necessity is the mother of invention. The smart tampon was not born from necessity. Instead, its invention creates a problem that the product then solves—kind of like the history of halitosis and Listerine, with the marketing of Listerine first identifying bad breath, or halitosis, as a medical problem.
Sure, there are a few cases where regular menstrual blood flow monitoring may be beneficial. For instance, smart tampons could be used to detect ovarian cancer, the symptoms of which (think fatigue, bloating and cramps) can be nonspecific, with later-stage presentations common (only 20 percent of these cancers being caught early). Nevertheless, only three percent of cancers are ovarian. Furthermore, the United States Preventive Service Task Force (USPSTF) recommends against routine screening for this cancer in women without symptoms.
Proponents of smart tampons argue that they empower women. Empowerment is great, but there are problems with receiving information without guidance. Physicians use the data from diagnostic tests to help formulate assessments and plans. Simply having the data, no matter how granular in terms of time, isn’t immediately actionable by the user and could possibly lead to anxiety or, worse, somehow feed into a person’s obsession to monitor every microfacet of their health. Even if you were to find some bad news out using a smart tampon, such as evidence of high-grade dysplasia, your physician would have caught this finding and counseled you on treatment after your next scheduled pap smear.
People tend to make the baseline assumption that knowing every single little aspect of your health as it changes in real-time will automatically benefit your health. That is, microanalyzing your health status is somehow automatically more beneficial in addition to regularly meeting with your physician and receiving all your recommended screenings. However, we don’t have evidence supporting the practice of parsing health for all types of disease.
For instance, smart tampons may be able to tell you on a monthly basis whether you're shedding cancerous cells indicative of cervical cancer but consider the following:
“The USPSTF recommends screening for cervical cancer in women age 21 to 65 years with cytology (Pap smear) every three years or, for women age 30 to 65 years who want to lengthen the screening interval, screening with a combination of cytology and human papillomavirus (HPV) testing every five years.”
Women are no longer recommended to automatically receive yearly paps let alone a diagnostic test that reports biomarkers several times a year. More frequent testing proffers little actionable benefit to the population as a whole and results in extra cost.
The start-up my.Flow touts that their smart tampon could help prevent toxic shock syndrome. Toxic shock syndrome was once a very big problem that commonly affected women who used tampons. Certain tampons lead to bacterial infection and shock. Leaving a tampon in too long could facilitate infection.
However, ever since tampon manufacturers pulled certain tampons off the shelf, the incidence of this scary illness plummeted. Today, fewer than half of all cases of toxic shock are linked to tampon use.
Another problem with smart tampons is inconvenience. The my.Flow system connects the tampon in your vagina to an odd-looking accessory that doubles as a key holder on your clothing. What happens if you’re in a rush to use the bathroom, the my.Flow is attached to your pants and you pull down without detaching it?
As for the NextGen Jane, its use invariably involves dealing with a soiled tampon. Most women are relieved by the disposal of a dirty tampon and throw it away as quickly as possible.
Finally, smart tampon technology like my.Flow closely tracks menstrual flow and then sends this data to a Bluetooth-enabled device. For people who are sensitive about their private information, nothing is more private than graphs of your menstrual blood flow. This information could be hacked.
The Significance of Smart Tampons
The technology of smart tampons is just emerging, and it’s emerging with limited transparency. Nevertheless, it’s possible to form an opinion on the capabilities that smart tampons touch on — the ideas that a woman’s flow can be monitored and analyzed. For the vast majority of women, this technology may not be worth it.
Of course, there are exceptions. For example, a woman in her early 40s who is closely monitoring both her reproductive status and career interests may be interested in current hormone levels. But does this woman represent the entire female population? Most women are satisfied with changing their tampons on a regular basis and seeing a physician when needed for routine check-ups and annual exams.
Furthermore, the average woman may balk at the thought of paying more for a tampon and all the premium subscription services that it comes with it. In fact, lots of people think that tampons should be free and freely available. For instance, in September 2016, Cornell University started to dispense free tampons in both the female and male bathrooms.
Smart Tampon Takeaways
In the end, with respect to smart tampons, it all boils down to one question: Are you solving a problem that needs an answer, or are you creating the illusion of a problem that affects all women equally? Yes, every woman is different, and some women may find use in a smart tampon, which would make it a form of specialty item.
One among many reasons why Theranos—the Silicon Valley unicorn, which promised to use only a few drops of blood rather than several vials’ worth to search for biomarkers of disease—failed was because this startup didn’t solve a problem that necessarily needed fixing. Yes, sparing a few drops of blood is more convenient and less painful than enduring a blood draw, but prescribed blood draws work well, too. There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel.
Analogously, if routinely adhered to, blood draws, pap smears, and other screening measures work well to detect gynecologic illness and fertility. Moreover, areas in which we do need improvement, like the early detection of ovarian cancer, may benefit from interventions other than smart tampons.