Is It Safe to Order Your Birth Control Online?

By Amy Norton

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 25, 2019 (HealthDay News) -- In recent years, a growing number of companies have been offering prescriptions for birth control through web-based services and smartphone apps. Now a "secret shopper" study suggests it's a safe and reliable source for women.

So-called "telecontraception" services have emerged as an alternative to trips to the doctor or local family planning clinic. They allow women to get prescriptions for birth control pills (or contraceptive patches or rings) after completing an online questionnaire, and sometimes having a follow-up call with a health care provider.

The prescription can be picked up at a local pharmacy or delivered by mail.

Many women get contraceptives through their doctor, but the issue of access to birth control has become more pressing as family planning clinics close across the United States.

Advocates argue that these online companies fill a gap, making at least some birth control methods more accessible -- particularly to women who live in "contraception deserts" lacking reproductive health clinics. And the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists just recommended in a new statement that hormonal contraceptives, including rings, shots and patches, be available without a prescription, to help meet that need.

On the other hand, the idea of online health care makes some people uncomfortable, said senior study author Dr. Ateev Mehrotra.

"It's common for people to say, 'Really? This couldn't be high-quality care,'" said Mehrotra, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School.

So his team decided to gauge the quality of online contraception services using a secret shopper approach: They had seven "patients" seek prescriptions for "the Pill" from nine companies that provided the service in the United States as of March 2018.

The patients made a total of 63 visits to the sites, filling out the standard questionnaires. Two companies provided video calls during the visit, and in about one-third of visits there was some kind of follow-up, either a call or text message from a health care provider with the service.

Overall, Mehrotra said, the companies did a good job of screening.

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