Isotretinoin Prescribers Need Better Education on Emergency Contraception

Heidi Splete

September 09, 2022

Only one-third of pediatric dermatologists who prescribed isotretinoin for acne reported feeling confident in their understanding of emergency contraception (EC), in a survey of 57 clinicians.

Dr Andrea Zaenglein

Pregnancies among patients on isotretinoin have declined since the iPLEDGE risk management program was introduced in 2005, but from 2011 to 2017, 210 to 310 pregnancies were reported to the Food and Drug Administration every year, wrote Catherine E. Smiley of Penn State University, Hershey, Pa., and coauthors Melissa Butt, DrPH, and Andrea L. Zaenglein, MD, of Penn State.

For patients on isotretinoin, EC "becomes critical when abstinence fails or contraception is not used properly," but EC merits only a brief mention in iPLEDGE materials for patients and providers, they noted.

Patients on isotretinoin who choose abstinence as their form of birth control are the group at greatest risk for pregnancy, Zaenglein, professor of dermatology and pediatric dermatology, Penn State University, said in an interview. "However, the iPLEDGE program fails to educate patients adequately on emergency contraception," she explained.

To assess pediatric dermatologists' understanding of EC and their contraception counseling practices for isotretinoin patients, the researchers surveyed 57 pediatric dermatologists who prescribed isotretinoin as part of their practices. The findings were published in Pediatric Dermatology. Respondents included 53 practicing dermatologists, 2 residents, and 2 fellows. Approximately one-third (31.6%) had been in practice for 6-10 years, almost 23% had been in practice for 3-5 years, and almost 20% had been in practice for 21 or more years. Almost two-thirds practiced pediatric dermatology only.

Overall, 58% of the respondents strongly agreed that they provided contraception counseling to patients at their initial visit for isotretinoin, but only 7% and 3.5% reported providing EC counseling at initial and follow-up visits, respectively. More than half (58%) said they did not counsel patients on the side effects of EC.

As for provider education, 7.1% of respondents said they had received formal education on EC counseling, 25% reported receiving informal education on EC counseling, and 68% said they received no education on EC counseling.

A total of 32% of respondents said they were at least somewhat confident in how to obtain EC in their state.

EC is an effective form of contraception if used after unprotected intercourse, and discounts can reduce the price to as low as $9.69, the researchers wrote in their discussion. "Given that most providers in this study did not receive formal education on EC, and most do not provide EC counseling to their patients of reproductive potential on isotretinoin, EC education should be a core competency in dermatology residency education on isotretinoin prescribing," the researchers noted. In addition, EC counseling in the iPLEDGE program should be improved by including more information in education materials and reminding patients that EC is an option, they said.

The study findings were limited by several factors including the small sample size and the multiple-choice format that prevented respondents to share rationales for their responses, the researchers noted.

However, the results highlight the need to improve EC education among pediatric dermatologists to better inform patients considering isotretinoin, especially those choosing abstinence as a method of birth control, they emphasized.

"This study is very important at this specific time for two reasons," Zaenglein said in an interview. "The first is that with the recent disastrous rollout of the new iPLEDGE changes, there have been many calls to reform the REMS program. For the first time in the 22-year history of the program, the isotretinoin manufacturers, who manage the iPLEDGE program as an unidentified group (the IPMG), have been forced by the FDA to meet with the AAD iPLEDGE Task Force," said Zaenglein, a member of the task force.

"The task force is currently advocating for common sense changes to iPLEDGE and I think enhancing education on emergency contraception is vital to the goal of the program, stated as 'to manage the risk of isotretinoin's teratogenicity and to minimize fetal exposure,' " she added. For many patients who previously became pregnant on isotretinoin, Plan B, an over-the-counter, FDA-approved form of contraception, might have prevented that pregnancy if the patients received adequate education on EC, she said.

The current study is especially relevant now, said Zaenglein. "With the reversal of Roe v. Wade, access to abortion is restricted or completely banned in many states, which makes educating our patients on how to prevent pregnancy even more important."

Zaenglein said she was "somewhat surprised" by how many respondents were not educating their isotretinoin patients on EC. "However, these results follow a known trend among dermatologists. Only 50% of dermatologists prescribe oral contraceptives for acne, despite its being an FDA-approved treatment for the most common dermatologic condition we see in adolescents and young adults," she noted.

"In general, dermatologists, and subsequently dermatology residents, are poorly educated on issues of reproductive health and how they are relevant to dermatologic care," she added.

Zaenglein's take home message: "Dermatologists should educate all patients of childbearing potential taking isotretinoin on how to acquire and use emergency contraception at every visit." As for additional research, she said that since the study was conducted with pediatric dermatologists, "it would be very interesting to see if general dermatologists had the same lack of comfort in educating patients on emergency contraception and what their standard counseling practices are."

The study received no outside funding. Zaenglein is a member of the AAD's iPLEDGE Work Group and serves as an editor-in-chief of Pediatric Dermatology.

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

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