Do you know your rights when asking for the morning-after pill?

Do you know your rights when asking for the morning-after pill?Access to the morning-after pill can be curtailed by a health worker responsible for dispensing the medication. (Photo Credit: Flickr)

For many, walking into a clinic or pharmacy and asking for the emergency contraceptive pill is a daunting task — and judgemental pharmacists or nurses don’t make it easier.

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Pharmacists need to be sensitive to patients requesting the emergency contraceptive pill — commonly known as the morning-after pill. According to University of KwaZulu Natal’s Professor Vassie Naidoo, patients are usually under stress when they ask for the pill because of the fear of falling pregnant, embarrassment at failing to use contraceptives effectively and lack of knowledge about the medication.

The morning-after pill is a form of emergency contraceptive that is used to prevent pregnancy in cases where unprotected sex has occurred or when the usual birth control method has failed, explains United States-based medical research organisation Mayo Clinic. It must be taken within 72 hours of the unprotected sex.

In South Africa, the drug is freely available to people of all ages in public health facilities. Additionally, people have been able to get the pill without a doctor’s prescription since 2000.

“The most effective way of ensuring that women have access to [emergency contraception] is by making it available over the counter. Long waits for clinic or physician appointments to obtain access to [emergency contraception] often causes delays which can compromise the efficacy of the treatment,” a study published in the European Journal of Contraception & Reproductive Health Care states.

But this access can be curtailed by a health worker who is responsible for dispensing the medication.

“It is crucial that a pharmacist remains supportive and refrains from making judgmental comments or indicating disapproval by means of body language or facial expressions while discussing the emergency contraceptive pill,” Naidoo says.

Pharmacists should be able to help reduce the stress and anxiety of the patient as well as offer them all the information they may need to understand how the emergency birth control method works.

“Supportive pharmacist attitudes including respect for diversity and beliefs will also improve compliance and promote effective patient pharmacist communication if follow up is needed,” she adds. However, young women are still facing stigma in pharmacies when trying to access sexual reproductive services — and more specifically the morning-after pill.

If pharmacists handle such cases in a manner that makes the patient uncomfortable, disciplinary action may be taken against them.

In some instances, health care professionals don’t provide these services to women because of their religious and cultural beliefs. This is called conscientious objection, which in many situations also applies to abortion services.

“Pharmacists who do not wish to provide EPC treatment for personal reasons should maintain objectivity and remain professional when dealing with patients, in this case, patients should be referred to an alternate source of EPC,” the South African Pharmacy Council’s Good Pharmacy Practice Manual states.

But activists believe that the ability to consciously object to providing the emergency pill or abortion services should not be tolerated anymore.

Reproductive justice advocate and author Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng says health workers should not deny people services, but people have gotten away with it in the past because there was no accountability or disciplinary action was taken

“There are women who feel judged by pharmacists, that is wrong it shouldn’t happen and there should be recourse to help people deal with that,” Mofokeng says.

“If people go into pharmacy, medicine or nursing as a career choice, they can’t then use personal values to withhold services from patients who have a right to these services. Personal values as a health professional are not more important than a patient’s right to access.” – Health-e News