Remote Abortions Are as Safe and Effective as In-Person Care

Jaleesa Baulkman

August 30, 2021

Telehealth abortion may be just as safe and effective as in-person care, according to a small study published online in JAMA Network Open.

Of the 110 women from whom researchers collected remote abortion outcome data, 95% had a complete abortion without additional medical interventions, such as aspiration or surgery, and none experienced adverse events. Researchers said this efficacy rate is similar to in-person visits.

"There was no reason to expect that the medications prescribed [via telemedicine] and delivered through the mail would have different outcomes from when a patient traveled to a clinic," study author Ushma D. Upadhyay, PhD, MPH, associate professor in the department of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at the University of California, San Francisco, said in an interview.

Medication abortion, which usually involves taking mifepristone (Mifeprex) followed by misoprostol (Cytotec) during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, has been available in the United States since 2000. The Food and Drug Administration's Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy requires that mifepristone be dispensed in a medical office, clinic, or hospital, prohibiting dispensing from pharmacies in an effort to reduce potential risk for complications.

In April 2021, the FDA lifted the in-person dispensing requirement for mifepristone for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Upadhyay hopes the findings of her current study will make this suspension permanent.

For the study, Upadhyay and colleagues examined the safety and efficacy of fully remote, medication abortion care. Eligibility for the medication was assessed using an online form that relies on patient history, or patients recalling their last period, to assess pregnancy duration and screen for ectopic pregnancy risks. Nurse practitioners reviewed the form and referred patients with unknown last menstrual period date or ectopic pregnancy risk factors for ultrasonography. A mail-order pharmacy delivered medications to eligible patients. The protocol involved three follow-up contacts: confirmation of medication administration, a 3-day assessment of symptoms, and a home pregnancy test after 4 weeks. Follow-up interactions were conducted by text, secure messaging, or telephone.

Researchers found that in addition to the 95% of the patients having a complete abortion without intervention, 5% (five) of patients required addition medical care to complete the abortion. Two of those patients were treated in EDs.

Gillian Burkhardt, MD, who was not involved in the study, said Upadhyay's study proves what has been known all along, that medication is super safe and that women "can help to determine their own eligibility as well as in conjunction with the provider."

"I hope that this will be one more study that the FDA can use when thinking about changing the risk evaluation administration strategy so that it's removing the requirement that a person be in the dispensing medical office," Burkhardt, assistant professor of family planning in the department of obstetrics & gynecology at the University of New Mexico Hospital, Albuquerque, said in an interview. "I hope it also makes providers feel more comfortable as well, because I think there's some hesitancy among providers to provide abortion without doing an ultrasound or without seeing the patient typically in front of them."

This isn't the first study to suggest the safety of telemedicine abortion. A 2019 study published in Obstetrics & Gynecology, which analyzed records from nearly 6,000 patients receiving medication abortion either through telemedicine or in person at 26 Planned Parenthood health centers in four states found that ongoing pregnancy and aspiration procedures were less common among telemedicine patients. Another 2017 study published in BMJ found that women who used an online consultation service and self-sourced medical abortion during a 3-year period were able to successfully end their pregnancies with few adverse events.

Upadhyay said one limitation of the current study is its sample size, so more studies should be conducted to prove telemedicine abortion's safety.

"I think that we need continued research on this model of care just so we have more multiple studies that contribute to the evidence that can convince providers as well that they don't need a lot of tests and that they can mail," Upadhyay said.

Neither Upadhyay nor Burkhardt reported conflicts of interests.

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

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