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Don’t skip contraception talk for women with complex health conditions



Use current health and desire for pregnancy to guide contraception discussions in primary care, according to authors of an updated report.

In an installment of the American College of Physicians’ In the Clinic series, Rachel Cannon, MD, Kelly Treder, MD, and Elisabeth J. Woodhams, MD, all of Boston Medical Center, presented an article on the complex topic of contraception for patients with chronic illness.

“Many patients with chronic illness or complex medical issues interact with a primary care provider on a frequent basis, which provides a great access point for contraceptive counseling with a provider they trust and know,” said Dr. Cannon and Dr. Treder in a joint interview. “We wanted to create a ‘go to’ resource for primary care physicians to review contraceptive options and counseling best practices for all of their patients. Contraceptive care is part of overall health care and should be included in the primary care encounter.”

The authors discussed the types of contraception, as well as risks and benefits, and offered guidance for choosing a contraceptive method for medically complex patients.

“In recent years, there has been a shift in contraceptive counseling toward shared decision-making, a counseling strategy that honors the patient as the expert in their body and their life experiences and emphasizes their autonomy and values,” the authors said. “For providers, this translates to understanding that contraceptive efficacy is not the only important characteristic to patients, and that many other important factors contribute to an individual’s decision to use a particular method or not use birth control at all,” they said.

Start the conversation

Start by assessing a patient’s interest in and readiness for pregnancy, if applicable, the authors said. One example of a screen, the PATH questionnaire (Parent/Pregnancy Attitudes, Timing, and How important), is designed for patients in any demographic, and includes questions about the timing and desire for pregnancy and feelings about birth control, as well as options for patients to express uncertainty or ambivalence about pregnancy and contraception.

Some patients may derive benefits from hormonal contraceptives beyond pregnancy prevention, the authors wrote. Combined hormonal contraceptives (CHCs) may improve menorrhagia, and data suggest that CHC use also may reduce risk for some cancer types, including endometrial and ovarian cancers, they said.

Overall, contraceptive counseling should include discussions of safety, efficacy, and the patient’s lived experience.

Clinical considerations and contraindications

Medically complex patients who desire contraception may consider hormonal or nonhormonal methods based on their preferences and medical conditions, but clinicians need to consider comorbidities and contraindications, the authors wrote.

When a woman of childbearing age with any complex medical issue starts a new medication or receives a new diagnosis, contraception and pregnancy planning should be part of the discussion, the authors said. Safe and successful pregnancies are possible for women with complex medical issues when underlying health concerns are identified and addressed in advance, they added. Alternatively, for patients seeking to avoid pregnancy permanently, options for sterilization can be part of an informed discussion.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Medical Eligibility Criteria for Contraceptive Use offers clinicians detailed information about the risks of both contraceptives and pregnancy for patients with various medical conditions, according to the authors.

The CDC document lists medical conditions associated with an increased risk for adverse health events if the individual becomes pregnant. These conditions include breast cancer, complicated valvular heart disease, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, endometrial or ovarian cancer, epilepsy, hypertension, bariatric surgery within 2 years of the pregnancy, HIV, ischemic heart disease, severe cirrhosis, stroke, lupus, solid organ transplant within 2 years of the pregnancy, and tuberculosis. Women with these and other conditions associated with increased risk of adverse events if pregnancy occurs should be advised of the high failure rate of barrier and behavior-based contraceptive methods, and informed about options for long-acting contraceptives, according to the CDC.


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