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COVID-19 Impacts Women’s Contraception Choices

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Editor’s note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape’s Coronavirus Resource Center.

The rate of unintended pregnancies in the United States has decreased to approximately 45%, based on data published in 2016, and “for the first time in many years, this decrease affected women of all race/ethnicity, income levels, and education levels,” Eve Espey, MD, said at the 2020 virtual meeting of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Changes in contraceptive choices drove much of this decrease, said Espey, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.

“What is really striking is the very large increase in use of the IUD,” she noted. However, the increased use of IUDs has raised concerns about coercive tactics being used to push for IUD use in communities of color.

“The focus we should have is on reproductive autonomy and not on unintended pregnancy, a metric that is classist and racist and may value the reproduction of some groups over others,” Espey said. Previous studies have suggested that providers are biased in how they promote long-acting reversible contraception (LARC), and reports from patients suggest that women and people of color particularly may feel marginalized, not heard, and coerced, she noted.

Help Patients Feel Empowered

Overall, the goal of contraception should be to empower women and people to make the reproductive decisions that are best for them. “My own approach to contraceptive counseling has changed over the years; I currently start by asking if the patient wants to talk about contraception,” Espey said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted many women’s reproductive options and plans, she said.

A survey showed that after COVID-19, more than 40% of women reported changing their plans about childbearing, 34% wanted to get pregnant later, and 33% reported trouble getting birth control or getting an appointment with a health care provider, she said.

ACOG issued a statement in March 2020 about the provision of contraception and how contraception is an essential component of comprehensive health care. The COVID-19 ACOG guidance on contraception includes use of telehealth for services including screening new patients, offering prescriptions and refills as appropriate, and managing side effects. Providers can counsel patients on the use of emergency contraception and provide advance prescriptions for ulipristal acetate, and ideally provide a year’s worth of prescription refills to reduce pharmacy visits, although not all insurance companies allow this, Espey noted.

ACOG’s COVID-19 guidance on the use of LARCs includes preserving access when possible, and focusing on postpartum contraception as a key access point.

“The postpartum period is a very convenient time for patients who want contraceptives, including LARC,” especially since they are already in the hospital setting, Espey said. However, it is important to preserve patients’ reproductive autonomy and avoid placing barriers to LARC removal for those who request it, she emphasized.

Consider MEC Categories for Contraception

When advising patients about contraception, Espey noted the development of a simple app with the U.S. Medical Eligibility Criteria (MEC) as a useful tool. The app includes the four MEC categories based on the latest evidence-based guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on contraceptive practice.

Patients in category 1 have no restriction on the use of a particular contraceptive method; category 2 means that “advantages generally outweigh the theoretical or proven risks”; in category 3, these risks usually outweigh the advantages; and category 4 indicates “unacceptable health risk if the contraceptive method is used,” according to the MEC.

“What complicates category 3 is that many patients have a condition that is associated with adverse outcomes in pregnancy,” Espey noted, “So it is even more important that category 3 options only be considered if other options are not available or not acceptable to the patient,”

For example, a patient with complicated diabetes who wants depot medroxyprogesterone acetate (DMPA) for contraception for a year must weigh the benefits with the theoretical risk of thromboembolic disease related to a higher dose progestin, and the fact that the injection is not reversible in the case of an adverse event. “Close follow-up is recommended for patients using contraception with category 3 recommendations,” Espey emphasized.

Some new elements of contraception that are ongoing in the pandemic health care setting include increased pharmacist prescribing of hormonal contraception, Espey said. Over-the-counter access to contraception is not yet an option, but a progestin-only pill will likely be the first, she added.

Although the Essure birth control implant is no longer available in the United States, new options for a contraceptive patch (Twirla [ethinyl estradiol and levonorgestrel] and Xulane [ethinyl estradiol and norelgestromin]) offer weekly contraceptive options for women with a body mass index less than 30 kg/m2.

Annovera Offers More Options

The newest choice on the market is Annovera, a flexible ring that delivers 150 mcg/day of segesterone acetate and 13 mcg/day of ethinyl estradiol. The ring is meant to remain in place for 21 days, with 7 days out, to repeat for a year.

During the question-and-answer session, Espey was asked whether it would be an off-label use to leave Annovera in continuously. Although this has not been studied, there is no biologically plausible reason not to leave it in for a year without taking it out. In either case, this is a patient-controlled LARC, she said.

Overall, “it remains to be seen how Annovera will do, as a potentially exciting, new, long-acting option” she said. “A major advantage is that it is controlled by the user,” she noted. However, “the price point will be very important as well.”

As for the off-label use by women with a BMI greater than 29 kg/m2, it is complicated. Two women with higher BMIs enrolled in clinical trials developed venous thromboembolisms, so an increased risk can’t be ruled out, although the good news is that BMI has not been shown to impact effectiveness of the product, she added.

IUDs Appropriate for Younger Women

When asked for her guidelines about IUD options in the absence of head-to-head trials, Espey said that she often recommends either Mirena and Liletta. These levonorgestrel-releasing IUDS are essentially the same, can be used off label for 7 years (both are currently Food and Drug Administration approved for 6 years), and have a favorable bleeding profile. Other IUDs are marketed as having a smaller diameter designed for increased patient comfort with insertion, but she views this as less important than bleeding profile and duration given the length of time the device is in place.

Espey added that she doesn’t see age as a barrier to IUD use, and that the evidence does not support an increased risk of infertility. In fact, “we are seeing a higher demand among younger and nulliparous women.”

“We should respect the reproductive autonomy and the choices that our patients make,” Espey concluded.

Espey had no relevant financial disclosures. She is a member of the Ob.Gyn. News editorial advisory board.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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