Keep Pregnancy Tests Dumb

I love a good teardown as much as the next gadget nerd, but two teardowns of digital pregnancy tests on Twitter illustrate how “technology” for reproductive health often misses the mark.

The first teardown comes via Twitter user @CrunkComputing: “My wife had been checking if she was pregnant, initially with test strips, which can cost as little as 20 cents ($0.27) each,” the user wrote. “She got some positive readings, so wanted something ‘more accurate,’ a digital test.”

Except upon cracking open the Clearblue digital pregnancy test, it became apparent that the only thing the “techy” parts did was… read a manual test strip. You know, the kind you pee on that tests for HCG (human chorionic gonadotropin) or the “pregnancy hormone.” The same kind you can buy in bulk on Amazon for roughly 20 to 30 cents ($0.41) per strip.

After making the rounds on Twitter, another user, @foone, replicated the results by investigating the Equate digital pregnancy tests. They also found that, while there were slight differences between the two brands, both tests shared many of the same components: an 8-bit Holtek HT48R065B microcontroller, a button cell battery, an LCD screen to display the results…and a regular old test strip.

The problem here is that digital pregnancy tests carry with them the air of superior accuracy. If it’s high-tech, it must be better, right? However, these two teardowns reveal that these digital tests aren’t using a more sophisticated method to determine pregnancy results. What they’re doing is adding electronic components to read the results and display them on an LCD screen.

There’s a strong argument that this might be useful in reducing the number of misread results. If you’ve never had to pee on one of these things, it can be anxiety-inducing trying to decipher the results to see whether there’s one line or two — especially if the potential second line is quite faint. Having a mini-processor, LEDs, and photodiodes interpret a result could be helpful in eliminating human error from the process. For the vision-impaired, digital displays might also be helpful (though in that case, perhaps it would be more helpful if the displays included backlighting). The companies don’t actually claim that digital tests are more accurate, but the assumption exists, and it’s misleading to let customers think a digital pregnancy test is any more accurate than a non-digital one. They simply may be easier to read.

While there are valid arguments for digital tests from an accessibility standpoint, studies should be done to verify whether this holds water in real-life use.

Another problem is these digital tests are also exponentially more expensive than their non-digital counterparts. Accuracy aside, what you’re then doing is taxing folks who may need a more accessible test, and unnecessarily milking more money out of folks who may already be paying through the nose for fertility treatments. Considering these components are fairly inexpensive, especially because these makers are likely buying them wholesale, it’s hard to see why consumers are being charged such a high markup (well, aside from the obvious: $$$$).

There’s also the issue of e-waste. As it turns out, batteries are not-so-great for the environment. Mining rare earth materials for circuitry and components is also, environmentally speaking, a serious problem. These digital pregnancy tests are designed to be used one time and then thrown away. It’s not likely that consumers will through the hassle of tearing down a device they’ve peed on just so they can recycle the electronic parts. What’s more likely is these one-time-use digital pregnancy tests are languishing in a landfill somewhere.

This isn’t an unsolvable problem. These companies could put their time and effort into developing reusable digital pregnancy tests. Given that these “high-tech” tests are in essence, glorified electronic readers, surely you don’t need a degree in rocket science to create a version where you can open a flap and replace the paper strip.

Making matters worse, the issue of fertility tech overpromising superior accuracy isn’t limited to digital pregnancy tests. (Though this one-time use, Bluetooth pregnancy test with a tacked-on app component is a good reminder that poorly thought-out fertility tech has been around for years.)

Last year, the $US330 ($453) Daysy Bluetooth fertility thermometer was found to have published a bunk “study” that overpromised its accuracy. Natural Cycles, an FDA-cleared contraceptive app that boasts a 93 per cent accuracy rate and costs $US80 ($110) annually, has also gotten into hot water after several women who used it became unintentionally pregnant.

Fertility isn’t always easy, and in general, finding novel ways to use technology to make the process easier is good. But it’s clear that consumer and environmental interests aren’t the main concern here — profit is.