Contemplating Plan B

How are campus health officials responding to the availability of the morning after pill over the counter?
August 28, 2006

For college students who wanted another level of protection against getting pregnant, the Food and Drug Administration’s decision last week to allow women 18 and older to buy the emergency contraceptive drug Plan B without a prescription came as welcome news. The risk of pregnancy can be lowered by up to 89 percent when a woman takes Plan B within 72 hours after unprotected sex. The drug has no effect if the woman is already pregnant.

Many campus health officials approved of the change, but some are saying that the development calls for a renewed emphasis on encouraging healthy sex habits among the college-age population.

Doreen Perez, past president of the American College Health Association and a health official at the University of North Florida believes that it is "paramount for us to help students understand" that the drug does not prevent sexually transmitted diseases. She also said that campus health officials should be "promoting healthy sexual behaviors."

Perez noted that students wouldn't be able to get the drug at her institution over the counter because North Florida doesn't have a pharmacy. Still, the health center does have Plan B on hand for students who meet with a campus health practitioner.

Vincent Serio, director of the health center at Boise State University, believes that students who choose to buy the drug over the counter without visiting a doctor may be missing out on some important health information. He said that members of his staff often ask why the student got into the situation that led to the need for Plan B in the first place. The most common reason, he said, was that a condom breaks during intercourse. In such a scenario, a health professional could recommend a more reliable form of birth control, such as the traditional one-a-day birth control pill.

“We think there’s a value to coming into a clinic,” said Serio. “Our staff members still want to be able to sit down and talk to students who end up needing this drug.”

Holly Grason, director of the Women's and Children's Health Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University, believes that such concerns should be minimal. “Most women in college are sufficiently informed about contraception,” she said “Colleges health center officials really need to be thinking about what kinds of messages are out there about the drug.” 

Grason said that more public health campaigns on campuses regarding the availability of Plan B would be useful. “We need to get the message out there that this is positive for females, she said. “There are significant societal benefits to preventing unintended pregnancies.”

Other health officials said that campus pharmacists would be expected to provide more information to students. “Our pharmacists will help educate and refer any patient to a clinician that needs additional counseling or information, since our pharmacy is open with parallel hours with our clinical hours,” said Lesley Sacher, director of the Thagard Student Health Center at Florida State University. “I can understand how some health care providers are concerned about reduced educational opportunities with the patient, but we do not consider these to be strong obstacles.”

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