New study sheds light on how pharmacies respond to emergency contraceptive inquiries


NEW YORK — Pharmacies may be misinforming teenagers about where they can locate emergency contraceptives without a prescription, according to a new study published in Pediatrics.

The study, led by Tracey Wilkinson of the Boston Medical Center and colleagues, had female callers pose as 17-year-old females or as physicians calling on behalf of teenage patients. By using standardized scripts, the callers telephoned 943 pharmacies across five major U.S. cities: Nashville, Tenn.; Philadelphia; Cleveland, Ohio; Austin, Texas; and Portland, Ore. While the majority of the pharmacies indicated the emergency contraceptive was available — 759 pharmacies indicated to "17-year-old" callers and 766 of them indicated to "physician" callers that EC was available — 19% of the pharmacies surveyed, or 145 pharmacies, incorrectly told callers that obtaining EC was impossible, compared with 23 of pharmacies (3%) that indicated obtaining EC was impossible to callers that posed as physicians. Additional findings included:

  • Pharmacies conveyed the correct age to dispense EC without a prescription in 431 adolescent calls (57%) and 466 physician calls (61%);

  • Compared with physician callers, adolescent callers were put on hold more often (54% versus 26%) and spoke to self-identified pharmacists less often (3% versus 12%); and

  • When EC was not available, 36% and 33% of pharmacies called by adolescents and physicians, respectively, offered no additional suggestions on how to obtain it.

"We believe that our study demonstrates that despite attempts to improve access to EC by lowering the age at which a prescription is required to 17 [years old], there still appears to be substantial access barriers for adolescents, largely based on misinformation," the study authors concluded. "Given the recent [Food and Drug Administration] decision not to change the prescription age requirements for EC, it appears from our study results that additional education regarding the current rules around EC dispensing is needed for pharmacy staff, adolescents, and physicians attempting to obtain this medication."

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