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You can get birth control from an app — but should you?

Birth control apps
Birth control and emergency contraception are just a few clicks away thanks to some new apps.
(Kirk McKoy / LA Times)

The latest thing technology is trying to make obsolete: visiting the doctor’s office.

An increasing number of apps and online services are offering women a way to get birth control, including emergency contraception, without having to visit a doctor in person.

For the record:
4:23 PM, Jun. 21, 2016 This story previously said the app Nurx was for obtaining birth control only. The app also offers PrEP.

California is one of a handful of states that allows people to access healthcare with a video conference or online, thanks to the Telemedicine Development Act of 1996 and the Telehealth Advancement Act of 2011.

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Apps like Lemonaid and Nurx, along with sites such as Virtuwell, Maven and Planned Parenthood, offer birth control-finding services. A quick overview:

  • Nurx is an app for obtaining birth control and the HIV prevention medication PrEP.
  • Lemonaid is an app that offers birth control prescriptions as well as options for finding treatment for conditions like a urinary tract infection, the flu, acne and hair loss.
  • The Planned Parenthood telehealth site offers birth control prescriptions along with options to order a home test for STDs and get treatment for a UTI.
  • Maven calls itself a “digital clinic for women” and has a network of doctors, nurse practitioners and experts on women’s and children’s health such as doulas, lactation consultants, pediatricians and nutritionists.
  • Virtuwell offers general healthcare treatment for the sort of thing you might visit your physician about: allergies, ear infections, pinkeye and colds in addition to birth control prescriptions and STD treatment.

With the apps, all you have to do is answer some questions and submit them along with a photo of yourself for a doctor to review. The sites require a short video conference with a doctor or nurse practitioner.

However, in some cases there is no digital replacement for face time (not FaceTime) with your provider. Jacqui Letran, a nurse practitioner in Costa Mesa who has 15 years of experience prescribing birth control to teenagers and adults, said she’s on the fence about it.

On the one hand, she said, doctor’s visits take time and money. People who are poor, who live far from a doctor’s office, or who can’t take time off from work during normal office hours would benefit from being able to take care of their health from the comfort of their smartphone.

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But on the other hand, education and risk assessment play a critical role in those in-person visits. It’s harder to replicate that online.

“If you’re not seeing your healthcare provider on a regular basis, you’re missing out on quite a bit of healthcare education,” Letran said. Also, birth control medicine comes with a very small risk of potentially dangerous side effects like blood clots, stroke and heart problems. "The majority of women can very safely take birth control,” she explained, but for the small percentage who can’t, a physical doctor’s visit is essential.

She recommended that otherwise healthy people see their regular doctor for their first birth control prescription and use apps or telehealth sites for refills, and plan to be back at the doctor’s office at least once every two years.

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jessica.roy@latimes.com

Find Jessica Roy on Twitter @jessica_roy.


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