A visit with a Planned Parenthood clinician is now only the touch of a button away. With the Planned Parenthood Get Care app, now available in Alaska, women can consult a clinician and get birth control mailed anywhere in Alaska.
“How fantastic would that be?” said Chris Charbonneau, CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest.
Even with Alaska’s vast geography and the remoteness of many communities, many women will be able to access contraceptives without traveling to one of Planned Parenthood’s four clinics in the state.
“It’s private, you get what you need — it’s the next best way of providing preventive health,” Charbonneau said.
The program has been available in Washington and Minnesota for about a year, but Charbonneau acknowledged that Alaska is unique.
“There’s rural, and then there’s Alaska-rural,” she said. “Even most rural towns in the Lower 48 you can drive to.”
The Planned Parenthood Get Care app can be launched from a smartphone, tablet or desktop computer, and it operates similarly to Skype or Facetime, though Planned Parenthood’s app uses its own encrypted technology to protect patients’ privacy.
While it’s recommended to use WiFi, it works with cellular data as well.
When asked about parts of rural Alaska with networks like EDGE providing cellular data, Charbonneau said she had been told it will work, but “there’s nothing like trying to be sure.”
So far, the only service available in Alaska is providing birth control, but Planned Parenthood is working on bringing STI testing services to the state, with mail-in kits, as well.
While living in a village or small town without access to reproductive health care is one reason to use the app, it is available to anyone within the state of Alaska.
Charbonneau suggested it might be great for women requiring privacy in small towns where the local clinic might not be an option due to relatives or family friends being employed.
It can also be a great fit for those with odd or unforgiving work or school schedules, people who may have a hard time getting to a clinic, busy moms or those whose lives are hectic enough that scheduling an appointment is a challenge.
On a smartphone or tablet, one needs only download the Planned Parenthood Get Care app, then create a login and profile. On a desktop computer, you can start a visit in your browser at www.plannedparenthood.org/get-care/online/video-visit/ and follow the steps.
Clinician Erin Mahony, ARNP, said there is availability for a video visit during evenings and weekends, in addition to the typical work week. She is one of the clinicians available for video visits.
A birth control consultation won’t take long. Planned Parenthood suggests it may take as little as 15 minutes.
STI screening will be available in the future as well.
Mahony said she’s received calls from people experiencing concerning symptoms, and that because of the limitations of a video visit, she directs them to visit a clinic near them.
Patients can choose from three types of birth control to receive by mail in discreet packaging — the pill, the patch or the ring.
These are methods of birth control that don’t require a physical visit for either the consultation or use. The pill is taken daily, the patch is replaced weekly and the ring is considered a monthly method. Mahony said it is popular because it doesn’t require the same regiment of the pill, and the hormones released are localized.
The visit for a self-pay patient is $45, and the contraception is affordable.
Charbonneau said they’ve worked with major insurers in Alaska, and some patients whose insurance companies aren’t contracted with Planned Parenthood have successfully petitioned their insurer for reimbursement for out-of-pocket payment, Mahony said. With the exception of Medicaid, which does not support video visits, insured Alaskans should be covered.
Charbonneau said Planned Parenthood is lobbying the federal government to have Medicaid support the use of technology for health care.
Those under financial hardship may qualify for family planning funding that Planned Parenthood receives.
Aside from the accessibility and ease of use, Mahony likes that the video visits are like a home visit. She gets to interact with patients where they are most comfortable, and she’s met many a dog and baby.
Charbonneau said birth control is one of the biggest advancements in women’s health in the last 100 years, and making birth control more accessible will only further the improvements it has brought — like healthier families, healthier women with fewer unintended pregnancies and enough time between pregnancies for women to recover.
“It’s one of the reasons women don’t die as much in childbirth anymore,” Charbonneau said.
In its first year, Planned Parenthood learned that people didn’t start using the program in droves at the start, largely because most didn’t realize this kind of clinician-to-patient telemedicine was possible.
“Is this legal,” Charbonneau said people asked. “Yes? Good. This is going to be great.”
Those who have used it have been happy with the service. Communications Specialist Erik Houser encouraged any who use the app to provide feedback so Planned Parenthood can “keep improving it and making it better for people.”
Charbonneau said that if it had been available when she was younger, she would have used it “in a heartbeat.”
Trying it out
I downloaded the Planned Parenthood Get Care app on my iPhone and connected using cellular data on Wednesday afternoon. Setting up a login was simple and it only took a few minutes before I was connected with Mahony.
She greeted me as she would any patient. She knew my name and had studied up during the few minutes it took to connect. The few minutes also included an introductory video.
Mahony said if someone doesn’t have a birth control method in mind, she would take about 10 minutes talking through the three options offered. For the sake of experiencing it, I asked about the ring and Mahony told me about the benefits of the method compared to the others.
Where there would have been questions about insurance and payment, we talked more about the program and how excited Mahony is that the service is available.
I also learned that Mahony has never been in Alaska, and had I been somewhere more scenic than a parking lot when I called, I would have provided a nice view. At the end, the patient disconnects and Mahony waved goodbye and said she hoped to come see Alaska.
The app was easy to use and Mahony was friendly and knowledgeable.