With New Features, Fitbit Aims To Become A Hub For Women's Health Data

Every year, Fitbit conducts a survey with its user base to see what new features they want the most. The consistent chart toppers — ones relating to longer battery life and additional music options — are expected. But among female users, another feature has regularly ranked among the top five: Period tracking.
Yesterday, alongside the launch of its new Apple Watch competitor, Fitbit Versa, Fitbit announced it is finally bringing the oft-requested tool to users.
This might not seem like a big deal. After all, there are plenty of well-liked period and ovulation tracking apps that Fitbit says roughly a quarter of American women already use to track their cycles, including Flo, Clue, and Eve. But while the majority of those apps ask for basic information such as your height and weight, they often don't have the ability to directly incorporate other measurable aspects of your health, including factors like sleep and exercise. Think about it: Unlike a device that you wear around your wrist, an app can't accurately track something like your heart rate. This is where Fitbit sees an opportunity to disrupt the space and expand on the ways women use tech to inform their health.
"What we found in our consumer concept testing was that the idea of having all your health information in one place was something people really wanted," Katherine Binder, the product marketing manager leading Fitbit Versa and the company's period tracking tools, told Refinery29.
Binder, who previously used a period tracking app herself, is personally invested in the technology. After going off the birth control pill, she started experiencing "crazy hormonal changes" that impacted her sleep, weight, and exercise. Her attempts to find answers by identifying correlations between her sleep cycles and period were not easy: She found herself repeatedly toggling back and forth between her Fitbit app, which contained the info she needed about her sleep, and her period tracking app. Besides the fact that going from one app to another is tedious, there's also the challenge of drawing meaningful insights from any correlations that are observed — both of which are areas Fitbit wants, and believes it is well situated, to address with its new features.
"The billions of data points we currently have about people’s biometrics will allow us to, over time, guide women to optimize their health and wellbeing in a way that other competitors cannot do at this point," Yasi Baiani, Fitbit's Head of Product Management, Software Experiences, told Refinery29.
Of course, there's no guarantee that the insights Fitbit gathers would apply to everyone or, for that matter, solve all your period-related concerns. But if the company is able to successfully learn more about the relationship between women's cycles and other health factors it could help fill in some gaps in knowledge. Currently, information about what a normal cycle looks like is lacking, Dr. Katharine White, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Boston University School of Medicine and advisor on Fitbit's new tools, told Refinery29. "Scientists tend to study diagnoses and diseases versus what’s normal," White said. "I joke that it’s really hard to get a grant to study what’s normal because people want to study problems."
Right now, the Apple Health app is the closest competitor to Fitbit's goal of becoming a hub for women's health data. The app lets you link to third party reproductive health, sleep, nutrition, and activity apps, but stops short of providing meaningful information about overlaps.
In order for Fitbit to really make itself valuable in the space, it will need to do just that. Currently, it's still early stages, making it too soon to say if the company can deliver on what it promises. When the new "female health tracking" tools launch in the Fitbit app and on Fitbit's smartwatches, Ionic and Versa, in May on iOS (and June on Android), the offering will be relatively similar to what users can get on other free period tracking apps: There will be a calendar where you can track your menstrual cycle and see an estimated fertile window. There are also cute icons you can tap to record the intensity of your flow, any fluids you observe, and conditions such as headaches or tender breasts that you experience.
Binder says that the components that can set Fitbit apart — drawing meaning from correlations between your period and other health factors — are coming soon, but won't be available at launch. It's also important to note that while period tracking will be available to anyone who identifies as a woman on the platform, the most robust insights and the ability to track your cycle on your wrist, will be only available to those with more advanced Fitbit devices, specifically the brand's smartwatches.
Other well established period tracking apps don't necessarily see Fitbit's entrance into the space as competition. "We are excited about Fitbit’s decision to introduce new functionality for period tracking," Dmitry Gurski, the co-founder and chairman at Flo, told Refinery29 over email. "We strongly believe this will have a positive impact on the overall market of women’s health, including Flo itself."
As Fitbit continues to gather additional data to make these insights possible, user security will be an increasingly important factor. In 2016, a Consumer Reports investigation found serious security threats in the reproductive health tracking app, Glow. Baiani says that Fitbit cannot internally see end-to-end information about one particular user, and that security continues to be a top priority, especially as the company delves into more sensitive health topics. (Fitbit's full privacy policy, which was last updated in September 2017, is available online.)
If you’re happy with your current period tracking method, you may not feel the need to switch to a Fitbit just because of the added feature. But if you have been considering a smartwatch, the new health component is a welcome bonus. Not to mention that at $199, Versa is an appealing alternative to the comparable Apple Watch Series 3, which starts at $329.
This piece has been updated to include comment from Dmitry Gurski, the co-founder and chairman at Flo.