Despite the fact that emergency contraception, also known as the morning-after pill, has been available since 2003, many teens still face barriers to obtaining the medication, a safe and effective way to prevent up to 74 percent of pregnancies following the failure of birth control or after unprotected sex.
A new study in the Journal of Adolescent Health finds that pharmacy staff frequently give teens misleading or incorrect information about emergency contraception that may prevent them from getting the medication.
"I was having lots of teenagers telling me weird things about emergency contraception prescriptions," says lead study author Tracy Wilkinson, M.D., a pediatrician at the Children's Hospital of Los Angeles. She says that pharmacies might refuse to fill a prescription, confiscate a written prescription or even deny that an electronic prescription had been sent.
This led Wilkinson to investigate just what was happening at pharmacies when teens tried to purchase emergency contraception. Female researchers, posing as 17-year-old teens, called over 940 pharmacies in Nashville, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Austin, and Portland, Oregon and asked pharmacy staff basic questions about emergency contraception, including its availability, age requirements and confidentiality.
At the time of the study, the emergency contraception brand Plan B One Step was legally available to any person 17 years of age or older without a prescription, but was kept behind the pharmacy counter for purchase with a photo ID. Other brands of emergency contraception, including a generic form, were available by prescription for all teens and women.
"About 20 percent of the pharmacy staff said that, because the callers identified themselves as teens, the callers couldn't get [emergency contraception] at all. That's completely incorrect," says Wilkinson. "Of the remaining 80 percent of respondents, about half of them got the exact age requirement correct and half of them did not."
Additionally, the study found that pharmacy staff often cited ethical reasons, such as institutional policies and personal religious beliefs, for not stocking or dispensing emergency contraception. Pharmacy staff often inaccurately told callers a parent or legal guardian would need to accompany the teen to pick up the medication, or that an older friend or boyfriend couldn't buy the prescription for them.