Moira Weigel “Men can test their sperm count at home with new device Trak” https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/jul/05/trak-sperm-count-app-men-fertility-testing
“In general women are getting tested and evaluated much earlier than men,” explains Greg Sommer, co-founder and CEO of Sandstone Diagnostics*2 which makes the Trak device. He met his co-founder Ulrich Schaff at the Sandia National Laboratories*3 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and started exploring the possibility of making an app to track male fertility in 2012. At the time, he says, “it was a wide open space, a wide open market opportunity”. “The fertility industry is exploding. But it’s all focused on women.”
Deborah Lupton*4, a sociology professor at the University of Canberra, Australia, who specializes in digital health studies and pregnancy, says she knows of no other device that allows men to test their sperm count at home. She said she welcomes it, not least because it draws attention to what male partners can do to help conceive. “So much emphasis is placed on women’s bodies in the conception process, including a plethora of apps and fertility monitoring devices and software that are directed specifically at women. It’s about time attention was turned to men and technologies developed to help them.”
Trak works by depositing a few drops of a semen sample into a disposable, single-use cartridge called a Prop. The device spins the cartridge, using centrifugal force to isolate sperm cells. The instructions note: “Seal before spin” – preferable to spraying a semen sample over nearby surfaces.
The Prop provides a reading, indicating whether the sperm concentration (a figure measured in “millions per millimeter”) is “optimal”, “moderate” or “low”. Finally, Trak sends this information to a smartphone app, which allows users to chart their sperm counts over time, keep track of how they correspond to other behaviors including sleep or stress, and to set and measure themselves against “goals”.
Trak devices start shipping in October 2016, priced at $159.99 – and come with a complimentary copy of a male reproductive health guide called Don’t Cook Your Balls. (Research has shown that sperm counts increase as much as 600% when a person who uses hot tubs regularly stops going in the hot tub.)
Like many health tracking startups, Sandstone claims its product will help democratize care by removing the obstacles that prevent people from seeking it. A sperm analysis at the doctor’s office in the US will typically cost $140 to $150, but many fertility treatments are still not covered by health insurance. And then there are questions of inconvenience, shame and stigma.
“It’s a big barrier for couples to go from saying ‘We’re having trouble conceiving’ to saying ‘We’re going to a fertility doctor,” Sommers observes.
Whether such devices become instruments for democratizing healthcare, or simply remain in the hands of early tech adopters – who tend to be disproportionately white and well off – remains to be seen.
And like all tracking devices, Trak also raises important unresolved questions about data privacy. “Consumer health technologies are always sensitive, and all the more so when it comes to areas that a lot of people feel are very private, like fertility,” says Karen Levy*5, a Cornell University professor who focuses on monitoring technologies.
“There can be a psychological benefit to feeling like you have some control over a very vulnerable part of your life – data can give us that feeling.” But Levy points out that the emphasis on the gamification strategies that many apps adopt to engage and motivate users can have negative psychological consequences.
“Scoring and quantifying aspects of sexual health has the potential to be empowering, by giving people data to act on ... but it also has the tendency to make people feel responsible for the underlying number, even if their capability to change that number is somewhat limited.”
Levy adds that the fact that fertility tracking devices are usually used by couples together introduces a whole range of complex questions quite different from a Fitbit or a Calorie Counter. They could have “all kinds of interesting and unanticipated consequences for relationships” – for instance, producing a situation where one partner scrutinizes and tries to control the data of another.
Levy observes that Trak’s project of trying to apply this Quantified Self approach to tracking male fertility flips the gender script. “It will be interesting to see how men respond to this. It might be the case that men are not used to providing sensitive data about their bodies in this context in the way that women have become accustomed to invasive data collection – in which case they might resist using these systems.
*1:See also http://d.hatena.ne.jp/sumita-m/20150213/1423795948 http://d.hatena.ne.jp/sumita-m/20160129/1454091286 http://d.hatena.ne.jp/sumita-m/20160603/1464962661 http://d.hatena.ne.jp/sumita-m/20160611/1465622604
*3:http://www.sandia.gov/ See eg. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sandia_National_Laboratories https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E3%82%B5%E3%83%B3%E3%83%87%E3%82%A3%E3%82%A2%E5%9B%BD%E7%AB%8B%E7%A0%94%E7%A9%B6%E6%89%80