Last week, the U.S. FDA approved Opill, the first over-the-counter birth control pill. It contains 0.075 mg progesterone and must be taken every day, at the same time of day. Opill now gives hospitals a new opportunity to reduce unwanted pregnancies by counseling women in the emergency departments, inpatient settings, and outpatient clinics.
How effective is Opill?
Most currently available prescription oral contraceptives are combination estrogen/progestin pills. The estrogen component poses risks of deep venous thrombosis, pulmonary embolism, hypertension, myocardial infarction, and stroke. For this reason, it is likely that combination estrogen/progestin oral contraceptives will remain only available by prescription in the future. Since progestin-only pills lack estrogen, they are generally safer than combination birth control pills. Opill contains norgestrel, a form of progestin. The amount of progestin in Opill (0.075 mg) is much lower than the amount of progestin in most combination pills (typically about 1.0 mg) and less than currently available progestin-only prescription birth control pills (0.35 mg). Because it only contains progestin and only in a very low dose, it is sometimes called a birth control “mini-pill”.
Opill (norgestrel) works by thickening cervical mucus, creating a barrier to prevent sperm from entering the cervix and uterus. In addition, norgestrel slows the passage of ova through the fallopian tubes and alters the endometrium to impede ova attachment. In about half of women, norgestrel also prevents ovulation. Norgestrel blood levels peak approximately 2 hours after ingestion and the drug is completely eliminated from the body by 24 hours. These pharmacokinetics are why rigid adherence to the dosing schedule at the same time every day is required.
The effectiveness of any form of contraception is often measured by the “Pearl index”, named after biologist, Raymond Pearl. This index is the number of pregnancies per 100 women using that form of contraception for one year. In a 2022 review of the literature in the journal Contraception, the average Pearl index for progestin-only oral contraceptives is about 2. This means that if 100 women use progestin-only pills for a year, 2 of them will become pregnant. However, in real life, the Pearl index is almost never as high as it is in clinical trials where researchers make every effort to ensure that women do not miss doses. It is just too easy to take a dose more than 3 hours late in the day or to forget to take a daily dose altogether. For this reason, it is likely that in regular clinical use, the Pearl index for Opill will likely be closer to the Pearl index of combination estrogen-progestin birth control pills, or around 7 pregnancies per 100 women per year. This puts Opill in an intermediately effective form of contraception: better than condoms but not as effective as IUDs or implants.
However, even with a Pearl index of 4 – 7 pregnancies per 100 women per year, Opill will now be the most effective over-the-counter contraception method available and far more effective than condoms.
Advantages and disadvantages of Opill
- No physician visit required for a prescription. The wait for a routine return appointment at my own PCP is 4 months. This is too long for most people to wait to get access to contraception.
- Good option for women/girls who do not want their healthcare provider to know about their sexual activity. This is particularly useful for minors who do not want their parents to know that they are sexually active.
- Useful for women who frequently travel or occasionally lose medications. It can be difficult to get an emergency refill of a prescription oral contraceptive, particularly when out of state or on weekends. Women can get a refill of their Opill anytime at any pharmacy in the country.
- Fewer side effects than prescription combination estrogen/progestin birth control pills.
- Unlike condoms and diaphragms, it is not necessary to interrupt sex to use Opill.
- No physician visit required for a prescription. This can be a missed opportunity to counsel women/girls about all of the various contraception options.
- Does not prevent sexually transmitted diseases.
- Should not be used in women with a history of breast cancer, women with undiagnosed vaginal bleeding, and women with liver disease.
- Can result in irregular vaginal bleeding.
- Other common side effects may include nausea, breast tenderness, and headaches.
- Must be taken every day and within 3 hours of the regular hour of the day that it is normally taken. If a dose is missed, delayed, or there is vomiting after taking a dose, alternative contraception must be used for at least 48 hours.
- Even with perfect use, 1 out of every 50 women will get pregnant every year.
- Possibly less effective in obese women/girls.
- Drug interactions with phenytoin, carbamazepine, barbiturates, rifampin, efavirenz, bosentan and St. John’s Wort. These drugs can render Opill ineffective.
- Not tested in girls younger than 15 years old.
An opportunity to counsel ER patients
One of the more common diagnoses we make in women in U.S. emergency departments is pregnancy. A 1994 study found that 6.3% of women of childbearing potential presenting to the ER had unsuspected pregnancies. The incidence of pregnancy in women presenting with abdominal pain is even higher at 13%. When women suspect that they may be pregnant, many will present to the emergency department for pregnancy testing rather than their primary care provider. This has become particularly true in states that have time restrictions on abortions. Because women often do not realize that they are pregnant until they miss a menstrual period, they are often 4 – 5 weeks pregnant when they begin to suspect pregnancy. In states where abortion is illegal after 6 weeks gestation, a delay in pregnancy testing of even a few days while waiting to see a primary care provider can result in exceeding the legal gestational time for an abortion. A trip to the ER is often the fastest way for a women to find out whether or not she is pregnant.
As a rule, emergency medicine physicians do not prescribe maintenance medications, including birth control pills. Consequently, until now, all that an ER provider could recommend to women who had came to the emergency department for pregnancy testing and had a negative test was to see their primary care provider for contraception counseling and prescriptions. Unfortunately, many women do not have a regular primary care provider. Furthermore, many adolescents do not want to speak to their pediatricians about contraception for fear that their parents will find out. Many unmarried adult women do not want to admit to their primary care provider that they are sexually active or do not want that information to be recorded in an electronic medical record that any healthcare worker might get access to.
But now, our ER providers have the ability to recommend reasonably effective non-prescription contraception to any woman. But how should the information be provided and which women should get that information? It is ineffective to simply ask women if they are sexually active in the ER because they are frequently not forthcoming about their sexual history. Indeed, a 1989 study found that 7% of women ER patients who stated that there was no chance that they were pregnant were, in fact, pregnant. Sometimes it is because there is a relative or friend in the ER room with them and they don’t want that individual to know about their sexual history. Sometimes, they don’t want to risk their sexual history being recorded in the electronic medical record. Sometimes they don’t even want the ER provider to know that they are sexually active because it would acknowledge violation of cultural or religious doctrines. The most effective strategy is to provide information about contraception to all women of childbearing potential. But what is the best way to provide that information?
Unfortunately, there are insurmountable barriers to printing up information about Opill on the ER after visit summary for every female patient between the ages of 11 and 50. Twelve-year-olds can and do get pregnant but handing out information about contraception to every 12-year-old who comes to the ER with a sprained ankle will infuriate many parents who in turn will write scathing reviews of the hospital on Yelp that will then infuriate hospital administrators and board members. Although the FDA does not expressly state the youngest age that Opill is indicated for, in clinical trials, it was not used in girls younger than age 15 so hospitals could potentially face legal liability if it is perceived that they were recommending Opill for girls younger than 15. In addition, some women and girls may be offended if this information is printed on their after visit summary. This could include women with previous tubal ligation or hysterectomy, widows, lesbians, Catholics, and the celibate. One compromise would be to just include information about Opill on the after visit summary for female patients between ages 18 and 50 or between ages 15 and 50. This option is less likely to offend parents but can still offend other girls and women. Another compromise would be to only include after visit summary information for patients who had a pregnancy test or a test for sexually transmitted disease in the ER. This would target those women and girls who are presumably at a higher risk of becoming pregnant but because most ER visits do not result in pregnancy or STD testing, most women and girls will not receive any information. Alternatively, information about Opill could be posted in public areas such as posters in examination rooms, posters in waiting rooms, or screen displays on public video/TV monitors. This is the least intrusive and least likely to offend anyone. However, it may be less impactful since there is no printed information for girls and women to take with them. Information does not need to be excessively detailed. For example, a wall poster or after visit summary could simply say something like “Over the counter birth control pills are now available; to learn more, go to this website…”.
Opill and Catholic hospitals
These informational tactics will only be applicable for the nation’s non-Catholic hospitals. Currently, 16% of all U.S. hospitals are affiliated with the Catholic Church. In many communities, a Catholic hospital is the only available healthcare facility. Because of the church’s doctrine prohibiting contraception, these hospitals would face opposition to providing information about Opill from the church. This is particularly unfortunate since a primary mission of many Catholic hospitals is to provide care to the underserved, a population of women who are less likely to have regular primary care providers and thus have less access to prescription contraception. Although 99.0% of Catholic women have used some form of contraception at some time of their lives (despite church doctrine), this is less than women with no religious affiliation (99.6%), mainline Protestants (99.4%), and evangelical Protestants (99.3%). This barrier to contraception access for Catholic women is reflected in the religious demographics of American women undergoing abortion – Catholic women are more likely to have an abortion than women belonging to other religions in the United States. Data from the Guttmacher Institute indicates that 24% of American women undergoing abortion identify as Catholic but only 22% of the American population as a whole is Catholic.
On the other hand, Opill provides a new opportunity for physicians employed by Catholic hospitals – including primary care providers at hospital-owned outpatient clinics. Many such hospitals and clinics prohibit their physicians from prescribing contraception, inserting IUDs, or even performing tubal ligation or vasectomy for the purpose of contraception. Many physicians at these hospitals are not even willing to include documentation of discussions about contraception in the electronic medical record for fear of being identified by hospital officials as providing forbidden services during medical record audits. Now, however, physicians and other providers at Catholic hospitals, emergency departments, and clinics can verbally recommend over-the-counter Opill to their patients interested in contraception without creating an incriminating documentation trail in the electronic medical record that could result in job termination.
Reducing unwanted pregnancies
Abortion legislation is currently one of the most controversial socio-political issues in the U.S. The most effective way to reduce abortion is not by making abortion illegal but instead by preventing unwanted pregnancies in the first place. As Americans, we waste way too much emotional energy arguing about abortion laws while often ignoring tactics to reduce unwanted pregnancies. The availability of Opill now gives us a new opportunity to reduce these unwanted pregnancies by increasing the availability of reasonably effective contraception to women who otherwise have barriers to obtaining prescription contraception.
We do not yet know how Opill will be priced. Most prescription oral contraceptives currently cost $10 – $50 per month without insurance and presumably, Opill will be in this general price range. Health insurance policies typically only cover prescription medications and generally do not cover over the counter medications. It is unclear if health insurance companies and Medicaid will cover Opill. The cost of Opill for a year is far, far less than the cost of a pregnancy. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that the total cost of pregnancy, child birth, and postpartum care is $18,865. In addition, the average healthcare costs per child is $2,966 per year which adds up to $53,388 from birth to age 18. This means that the total healthcare cost of an unintended pregnancy is $72,253. In addition, the average cost of $4 per child per day for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, aka food stamps) adds another $26,280 charged to taxpayers over 18 years for every unwanted pregnancy to a low-income woman. Even at a cost of $50 per month, insurance companies and Medicaid programs would be financially foolish to not cover Opill. Indeed, by preventing unwanted pregnancies, Opill could reduce health insurance premiums and reduce taxpayer costs of Medicaid and SNAP.
Not perfect, but…
Opill is not the most effective form of contraception, nor is it for all women and girls. But it is a well-needed addition to the current contraception options and holds the promise of reducing unwanted pregnancies and abortions. Hospitals, and especially emergency departments, can play an important role in educating women and girls about Opill. Each hospital should decide for itself what the best method of patient education is in its own facilities.
July 17, 2023