When we need oral contraceptives or other hormonal birth control such as patches or rings, we generally need to make a doctor’s appointment to endure a long questionnaire, an examination, and an office copay before going to the pharmacy to get our prescriptions filled. But what if we could skip the doctor’s office and walk straight to the pharmacy counter without that little slip of paper? Well beginning this year, new laws in Oregon and California will allow women to head directly to the pharmacist to obtain their birth control without a prescription from their doctors.
I admit when I first read about this, I thought “Wait, what?” No doctor’s script? While it may be normal for women to bypass their physicians to access hormonal birth control from their local drug store in many other countries, that’s not how we do it here in the States. I still wondered about the safety of haphazardly placing hormones in our bodies and the potential costs for convenience. After all, a prescription otherwise indicates danger, right?
Granted pharmacists are formally-trained professionals with certifications and licenses, but with so many variations of the pill alone – monophasic or combination or progestin-only to name a few – I didn’t understand how they could accurately make an on-the-spot determination about what option is ideal for my body. For example, I know Triphasil works best for me because my doctor made that assessment from a conversation and a medical examination. And what about the risks? We’ve heard all about the potential side effects: blood clots, heart attacks, and increased blood pressure and strokes, especially for those of us over 35 who may also smoke. So can we really walk up to the counter and ask a pharmacist for the pill like it’s Claritin, Pepcid, or Nyquil?
Medical professionals and policy makers say yes.
Fortunately pharmacists will be required to consult with patients to discern health and medical concerns and discuss family histories before any medication is dispensed. And for added measure, pharmacists in California will take a woman’s blood pressure before prescribing contraceptives that contain estrogen.
And to further ease our fears, studies also show that hormonal birth control is not dangerous; we perceive it to be because it requires a physician’s permission. But according to a 1993 editorial in the American Journal of Public Health, “more is known about the safety of oral contraceptives than has been known about any other drug in the history of medicine.”
So essentially in 2016, the stirrups, speculum, and the $10+ we pay to be probed in our lady parts really aren’t necessary for birth control purposes.
But what’s interesting is that this new process is being pushed partly as a solution to curb the number of accidental pregnancies (about 50 percent of the annual 6.6 million pregnancies in the United States) due to not being able to afford contraception, even though eliminating the doctor’s visit doesn’t automatically mean our birth control will be cheaper or free.
While insurance currently pays doctor’s visits and will continue to cover the cost of contraception under this new law, there’s no guarantee that insurers will cover the fee that pharmacists will charge to consult and evaluate our birth control options. That cost could at least be $25, which could still be too expensive for those women who didn’t have the money in the first place.
Regardless of its potential flaws, this new development is still worthy of a little praise dance. For one, it’s a matter of convenience. If I’m an oral contraceptive user and my current prescription that happens to work just fine is about to run out, I won’t have to make an appointment weeks in advance for an exam I really don’t need just so I can refill it.
Besides Pap smears aren’t annual requirements, although some of us still get one every year. Health professionals recommend Pap smears to women over the age of 21 every three years, but many argue that if we have to go to the doctor more frequently for our contraceptive needs, we’re almost guaranteed to remain up-to-date on our screenings. But according to a study conducted on Texas women who received their contraceptives in Mexico, where no prescriptions are needed whatsoever, the results revealed that they still remained on point with their visits when it came to their reproductive health.
But most importantly, this new law allows us to have better control of our reproductive needs. Sure we can still buy condoms, sponges, and spermicide conveniently and privately, but maybe those birth control methods aren’t what we really want. The ultimate goal is for hormonal birth control to be available over-the-counter, too, with no middle man in the process.
“My basic tenet is there should be nobody between the patient and the pill,” says Dr. Mark DeFrancesco, president of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
And what that means is one or two less persons unnecessarily digging in our sexual organs and health.