CES 2017: Pregnancy sensor seeks to ease worries for mothers-to-be

  • TECH
  • Wednesday, 04 Jan 2017

The Bloomlife Smart Pregnancy Tracker is shown which tracks and counts labor contractions at home at CES in Las Vegas, January 3, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Molly Cruit attached a small device to her pregnant belly, and a few minutes later, a graph on her smartphone suddenly spiked. 

"Oh my god!" the 38-year-old Portrero Hill resident exclaimed. 

She was having a contraction. But without the device, a small sensor she stuck to her belly called Bloomlife, and its corresponding app, she probably would have just passed the faint tightness in her belly off as nothing, she said. 

Bloomlife is a digital pregnancy wearable that helps women track the frequency and duration of their labour contractions. On Jan 4, the San Francisco startup announced that the product had completed trials and is commercially available. An update, expected this year, will be able to track the baby's movements, heart rate and position, and the mother's stress levels. 

"You go through so much of this so blindly, and you lose complete control of your body," said Cruit, a jewellery designer who is eight-and-a-half months pregnant. The device "gives me more peace of mind, and I know that things are working, and doing what they are supposed to be doing."

McCall Peck, 8 months pregnant, shows off the Bloomlife Smart Pregnancy Tracker stuck to her belly which tracks and counts labor contractions at home at CES in Las Vegas, January 3, 2017.  REUTERS/Rick Wilking
A pregnant lady showing off the Bloomlife Smart Pregnancy Tracker stuck to her belly which tracks and counts labour contractions at home at CES in Las Vegas. — Reuters

Bloomlife, which has been tested by doctors, is one of a crop of apps focused on women's healthcare, such as birth control, fertility and pregnancy. These types of apps have proliferated over the past few years, according to Rock Health, a venture fund and research firm dedicated to digital health. 

When Cruit became pregnant this year, she had hundreds of apps to choose from, ranging from one that helped her create a registry, to another that would periodically tell her how big her baby had become. 

In 2011, no company focused on women's health raised more than US$2mil (RM8.99mil), according to Rock Health, which has not invested in Bloomlife. By late 2015, nine such companies had collectively raised US$82mil (RM368.79mil). Pregnancy-focused apps alone raised US$26mil (RM116.93mil) in that period, according to the most recent Rock Health data available. 

Bloomlife has raised US$4mil (RM17.99mil) from investors including Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and Kapor Capital. The wearable can be leased at a cost of US$149 (RM670) for one month; those using it for longer can get a lower per-month price. 

Eric Dy, one of the two male founders of Bloomlife, touts the device as the first and only pregnancy wearable that allows women to measure pregnancy-specific parameters. It can currently only measure contractions and be used with an Android device, but a February update will expand to iPhones, Dy said. 

Since Dy cannot use the device himself, he relied on feedback from women who tested it – many of whom complained about the antiquated technology that hospital maternity wards currently use. 

Some of the women he signed up to test the device, he said, were still using pen and paper to track their contractions. 

The idea of Bloomlife, Dy said, is to provide reassurance to pregnant women. 

"It's a way to connect with her pregnancy a little more, and a way to decode those weird pregnancy sensations she might be feeling," Dy said. 

Bloomlife said the majority of testers are in their early to mid-30s, with a handful in their 40s, and live across the United States. 

While Dy said pregnancy is an area of health care ripe for disruption, the idea has its sceptics. 

Laurie Green, a partner at the Pacific Women's OB/GYN Medical Group, said that while tracking one's pregnancy closely may be interesting and beneficial in some cases, having too much information can bring its own kind of stress and confusion. 

"If a patient is accumulating the data and trying to interpret it themselves, that could be a problem," Green said. "Anything pregnancy-related is the most anxiety-provoking area." 

Contractions late in pregnancy, for example, are common and do not necessarily signal that birth is imminent. 

Bob Wachter, an expert on digital healthcare and chairman of the Department of Medicine at UCSF, said the market for digital health care is oversaturated. 

While thousands of devices and apps related to health care have popped up over the past few years, Wachter warned, "just because you can measure it doesn't mean that is useful data." 

"There is a lot of stuff in medicine that we don't know what it means, and (how) to understand and interpret it correctly," he said. "There is a reason why people go through years of training." 

Despite that, Erica Hager, a mother who went through two pregnancies without Bloomlife, said she loved being able to track the information herself during her third one – especially because the hospital closest to her in North Dakota is 20 miles away. 

She said the device and app helped ease the constant worries. 

"The most trying act of patience is your last month of pregnancy, and your mind constantly plays tricks on you," she said. "It was a nice way of knowing it was not just in my head." — The San Francisco Chronicle/Tribune News Service

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