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Should the contraceptive pill be sold over the counter?

Should there be easier access to contraceptives? Head of professional services for Green Cross Health, Alison Van Wyk, says we need to move with the times.

We’ve come a long way since the pill was known as ‘Wife’s Friend’ when it was rather unreliable and unsafe.
The first contraceptive pill was made more than 100 years ago, in an era when any mention of contraception was considered obscene. These days women openly talk about getting the pill and access is just an appointment away… but unfortunately they remain at the mercy of opening hours.
The main issue for working women and busy mums is that in many places GP clinics are closed on weekends and have limited opening hours during the week.
Juggling commitments to schedule an appointment can be challenging.
I sometimes struggle to find time for a lunch break, let alone a doctor’s appointment, and I’m sure many women can relate.
A Woman's Choice
That’s why for the past two years I have been part of a team making submissions to the Medicines Classification Committee for the pill to be available at pharmacies without a prescription or appointment. We have made three attempts on behalf of all New Zealand pharmacies to have the pill reclassified, the last of which came within a hair’s breadth of being approved for repeat supply.
Opposition means we’re still locked in the process.
Some GPs feel as though supplying oral contraceptives in pharmacy would leave them in the dark as to what their patient is being prescribed. However, I feel this is no different to what occurs when a contraceptive is prescribed outside of general practice and, with consent, pharmacists will inform the relevant GP.
Pharmacists are key providers of primary healthcare and advice within their communities. In the past five years, pharmacists have become vaccinators against serious diseases, providers of treatment for urinary tract infections without the need for a prescription, and can offer treatment for erectile dysfunction.
It’s time to supply women with the tools to support their own sexual health.
Pharmacists are well equipped to consult with women about their contraception needs; many pharmacies have a consulting room or private area to have discreet conversations and extended opening hours to meet the needs of our increasingly time-poor society.
Ultimately, the decision as to where a woman chooses to get her oral contraceptive, provided her safety and wellbeing is the first priority, should not lie with the doctor, or the pharmacist, but with the woman herself.
Access to the pill through a pharmacist without the need for an appointment would come as a godsend to women who have run out of the pill, or forgotten to pack it in their toilet bags when they go on holiday. If getting a repeat supply of the pill was as easy as popping into your nearest pharmacy, then surely unintended pregnancy rates could drop, along with stress levels.
Women deserve to have the choice whether or not they wish to prevent pregnancy and that includes convenient access to contraception. Having a child is a sacred and incredibly exciting time in a woman’s life. But when a pregnancy is unintended it can be frightening and stressful.
The emergency contraceptive pill (ECP) is available in pharmacy, and trained pharmacists provide more than 50,000 ECPs a year, a process which includes a consultation. Approximately 200,000 women in New Zealand currently take oral contraceptives, but ironically, these longer term and more widely-used contraceptives are less readily available.
By no means are pharmacists setting out to replace other medical professionals; we’re simply offering a convenient option provided by trained professionals who deal daily with sensitive issues like contraception.
With their customer’s consent, pharmacists will notify their doctors of the supply of the oral contraceptive and, with the move towards improved access to electronic medical records, the right information will reach the right people and the woman will only have to tell her medical story once.
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