How to Access Reproductive Healthcare During a Pandemic

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Staying safe during a pandemic raises a lot of questions about if and when a doctor’s visit is necessary—and if it is, what additional measures patients need to take to safeguard themselves. Office visits are now complicated by both the risk of exposure to COVID-19 and the imperative that we balancing the needs of an overburdened healthcare system.

This includes access to reproductive healthcare. We were able to reach Jennifer L. Stanley, D.O., a board-certified OB/GYN at Houston Methodist Hospital, by email to answer some of our questions.

“Our number one priority at this time is to provide the care you need while keeping you safe and minimizing your exposure to COVID-19,” Stanley says.

Prenatal care

Pregnancy is a time when patients typically have a lot of visits with a provider. For a healthy pregnancy, 10-15 visits is typical.

Many OB/GYN practices across the nation have implemented changes to accomplish this task such as a shift to telemedicine visits,“ Stanley says. “With the use of telemedicine, we are able to significantly reduce this number in our healthy pregnant patients.”

For patients without health concerns, then, this means some of your doctor’s visits will be over the phone.

Patients with complications such as high blood pressure, gestational diabetes or pre-eclampsia, on the other hand, require a greater number of visits. For them, it is still vitally important to continue talking with your doctor and receiving regular care.

“One of our biggest priorities is to keep our pregnant patients safe by eliminating the risk of exposure to the virus,” Stanley said. This includes using telemedicine when appropriate and minimizing risks for unavoidable in-office visits. Such measures include screening for symptoms beforehand as well as changing how the office manages their flow of patients in order to ensure proper physical distancing.

Keep in mind that we are deep into a rapidly evolving situation, so recommendations may change by the week or even the day. That makes it doubly important to call ahead of your scheduled appointment time and ask questions about what actions you and your provider need to take to stay safe.

When it comes to delivering your baby, hospitals are enacting different measures to reduce exposure risks. It’s extremely important to talk your doctor about what these will look like and to plan accordingly. Some questions to ask include whether a birth partner or doula is allowed in the delivery room, what procedures hospitals have for screening patients who might be infected with COVID-19, as well as procedures for keeping mothers and newborns away from the general hospital population.

IUD or implant removal

For patients scheduled to have an IUD or birth control implant removed, the good news is the procedure can wait.

“There are no direct risks associated with postponing the removal of an IUD or implant,” Stanley said. “These devices are made of materials that do not cause any harm to our bodies.” The biggest risk to delaying removal is pregnancy. If the implant has expired, then the recommended course of action is to delay removal while using a backup method of birth control, such as condoms.

Accessing contraceptives

Access to contraceptives such as the pill, the patch or Nuvaring can be secured via telemedicine. “There are several options for contraception that can be picked up at your local pharmacy, and these can typically be prescribed after a quick telemedicine visit with your OB/GYN provider,” Stanley said. A telemedicine visit can be as simple as a phone call or video chat, with no in-person visit necessary.

There are also services such as Nurx, which will mail your prescription to you, while a number of pharmacies are also offer prescription delivery as an option.

Abortion access

Both Ohio and Texas—states which already have placed significant restrictions on abortion—have used this pandemic as a rationale to stop abortions, arguing that they count as elective procedures. Planned Parenthood, along with other Texas abortion providers, is challenging Texas’ decision in a lawsuit.

“The priority of Planned Parenthood health centers is ensuring that every person can access essential health care while conserving needed resources,” said Alexis McGill-Johnson, acting president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in a press call on March 25.

As the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists noted in a statement, “Abortion is an essential component of comprehensive health care. It is also a time-sensitive service for which a delay of several weeks, or in some cases days, may increase the risks or potentially make it completely inaccessible. The consequences of being unable to obtain an abortion profoundly impact a person’s life, health and well-being.”

In the event a patient needs a safe, accessible abortion, options may be more limited, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. One first step is to reach out to your local Planned Parenthood office in order to assess your options. Planned Parenthood health offices are currently open, with new precautionary measures in place to keep patients healthy. Your options may vary depending on where you are, and contacting a clinic is the best way to get the most up-to-date information.

Accessing healthcare in a rapidly changing situation

Every day of this health crisis brings change and new challenges. Recommendations may shift as time progresses and the situation evolves. For that reason, the most important piece of advice is to communicate with your doctor, so you can stay abreast of their strategies for minimizing exposure while also continuing to provide you with the healthcare you need.

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