A new study finds that pharmacies often gave 17-year-olds wrong information about – and denied them access to – the emergency contraceptive sold under the brand name Plan B One Step. Meanwhile, doctors calling the same pharmacies got accurate facts.
Researchers from Boston Medical Center/Boston University School of Medicine orchestrated calls to 943 pharmacies, covering every pharmacy in Nashville, Tennessee; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Cleveland, Ohio; Austin, Texas and Portland, Oregon. Female callers posed first as 17-year-old girls, then two weeks later as physicians seeking advice for their 17-year-old patients.
Around 80 percent of the pharmacies reported having the drug, available over the counter to women ages 17 and older and by prescription to younger teens, in stock. But when callers posing as 17-year-olds asked if they could get the medication, 19 percent were told that they could not get it under any circumstances. Only 3 percent of callers posing as physicians were told their 17-year-old patients could not get the drug.
Almost 640,000 unplanned pregnancies occur in girls ages 15-19 in the U.S. each year.
The study didn’t look into reasons behind the misinformation, but the authors noted that “teen” callers spoke to people who identified themselves as pharmacists less often than “doctors” (3 percent vs. 12 percent of the time) and that other pharmacy employees might not be as well informed about rules for dispensing the medication, or might not want teens to have access.
“Given the history of emergency contraception, the politics around it and also the frequent changes to the dispensing regulations, there are lots of sources of misinformation,” says lead author Tracey Wilkinson, M.D., a general pediatrics fellow at the university.
Wilkinson says she doesn’t know of any national standard that determines who answers questions about medication at pharmacies. A representative from CVS Caremark, which claims to be the largest pharmacy health care provider in the U.S., says that a question about whether emergency contraception was in stock and at what age a person can purchase it without a prescription would not require a pharmacist to answer.
Wilkinson advocates improved education for pharmacy staff and adolescents, and says doctors could consider issuing prescriptions for teen patients even when they aren’t required by law, to help guarantee timely access.
Meanwhile, she is studying the possibility of providing the medication in advance to sexually active teenagers. “That way, they already have emergency contraception if they need it,” she says. “Because teenagers are at such risk for unplanned pregnancy, it is imperative that we figure out ways to guarantee them this safe and effective form of contraception.”
Her study appears in the March 26 issue of Pediatrics.