Yesterday Jezebel posted a disturbing article detailing the results of a Boston Medical Center/Boston University School of Medicine study. The study, examining 943 pharmacies, uncovered alarming statistics about the amount of misinformation provided by pharmacists regarding the Plan B pill.
Sidebar: Plan B One-Step is a pill that is meant to be taken up to 72 hours after unprotected sex in order to prevent pregnancy. If your mind automatically jumps to “Abortion Pill,” you are actually thinking of RU-486, which is completely different both in medication and prescription guidelines. Anyone who refers to Plan B as an abortion pill is wrong. Feel free to smugly correct them.
Plan B is available to anyone over the age of 17 without a prescription, and available to anyone under the age of 17 with a prescription. Simple enough; however, the Boston study uncovered an unsettling trend where pharmacists routinely shared false information with researchers posing as teenagers, while sharing correct information with researchers pretending to be doctors. 80% of pharmacies acknowledged that they had the pill in stock, but when an “under-17-year-old” asked how they could get the pill, 19% were told they could not get it at all. Only 3% of “doctors” were given the same incorrect response. When the “teens” asked the pharmacists what the age rule was, 43% of pharmacists answered incorrectly.
Researchers attempting to explain this rather damning discrepancy mentioned that as a rule, “doctors” spoke more often with actual pharmacists, while “teens” generally spoke to “lower-level pharmacy employees who might have been less informed about the FDA rules.” Even if you use this information to deny that this rampant misinformation is motivated by personal beliefs of the pharmacist, I still find it shameful. Granted I know very little about day-to-day pharmacy operations, so correct me if I am wrong, but I have always been under the impression that even lower-level pharmacy employees are trained to deal with medications. Maybe they don’t have full pharmacy degrees, but I always thought they were at least pharmacy students or in some way involved in the medical field. If that’s the case, there really is no excuse for not knowing basic information about medication. Really, the access guidelines are not complicated – I summed them up in one quick sentence. And, if for some reason the person on the phone doesn’t know the answer to the question, they should be passing the customer on to someone who does (i.e. a fully certified pharmacist). This isn’t a restaurant where the waitress isn’t sure if the nachos come with guacamole. People go to pharmacies for potent, sometimes dangerous medications, and not knowing basic information about these medications could very possibly mean the difference between life and death for a customer.
“You’re just being cynical,” you think, “just because pharmacists are answering the question wrong doesn’t mean it’s anything more than a mistake.” First, let me repeat the statistic of 43%. Forty-three percent of pharmacists incorrectly shared the age limitations for Plan B with their customers. That’s a pretty large number for it to just be an issue of training. Second, let me share a bit of evidence as to why my brain immediately screamed “shenanigans!” when I read the study.
There is a bit of a battle going on right now over whether or not a pharmacist should be required to fill a prescription that goes against his or her personal beliefs. According to the National Women’s Law Center, as of 2011, there have been documented cases of pharmacist refusal in 24 states. Six states: Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Mississippi, and South Dakota, all have laws or regulations that allow pharmacists to refuse to fill a prescription, without the requirement that they refer or transfer the prescription to someone who will. Three states: Indiana, Missouri, and Pennsylvania, have recently considered bills that would provide the same protections. Missouri currently incorrectly classifies emergency contraception as an abortifacient (abortion-inducing) even though the FDA has ruled it a form of birth control.
In August of 2011, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) proposed the Access to Birth Control Act that would make the actions of these pharmacists illegal. I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that this even needs to be put forth as a federal law, since I am of the opinion that if you decide to become a pharmacist, you need to accept all the responsibility that comes with that position. You are a healthcare provider, and you don’t get to pick and choose which people deserve your help or not.
The attack on women’s access to healthcare is happening on so many fronts. It’s like one of those mythical sea creatures with giant tentacles: we manage to cut off one arm (like narrowly defeating the Blunt amendment) and another springs up in its place (pharmacists decide to bring religion into the workplace). We just need to keep hacking away, bringing these issues to national attention, and hopefully sanity will prevail.