Social media myths undermine reproductive health

4 minute read

With 40% of Australian pregnancies unplanned, experts say it’s time for health professionals to battle a rise in misinformation.

Turning to TikTok for contraception advice is probably not the wisest choice, but more patients are putting their trust in social media, leaving experts concerned about the high rates of unintended pregnancies.

The TikTok hashtag #gettingoffbirthcontrol has had more than 18 million views, some of which is misinformation around pain and IUD insertion.

More needs to be done to combat this misinformation, experts said in an online panel about a recent Senate inquiry into barriers to sexual, maternity and reproductive healthcare.

For example, TikTok influencers tout the benefits of “natural hormones” and talk about how their lives changed for the better once they stopped taking hormonal contraception.

Young women advise “how to prep your body to come off birth control” and spread myths like hormonal contraception suppresses the immune system, that it could harm mental health and that “the birth control pill makes you less sexy (science says so)”.

In the panel discussion, women’s health expert Professor Deborah Bateson warned that a lack of education and support partly explained why people were turning to social media.

“Obviously we recognise that some women do experience pain [with IUD insertion] and we want to make sure they’re offered pain relief,” Professor Bateson, from The University of Sydney, said.

“But we need to ensure that we … counteract that with evidence-based messaging, which is appealing to the demographic that’s looking at TikTok.”

Iris Education co-director and GP Dr Caroline Harvey agreed that consumers needed good, evidence-based information aimed at appropriate literacy levels.

“People may think an IUD, for instance, isn’t suitable for someone who hasn’t had had children, or implants are not suitable for older women. There’s a lot of misinformation,” she said.

There may also be a belief in the clinical sector that IUD insertion for young women could only happen under general anaesthetic, “and of course, that’s not true at all” Professor Bateson said.

The audience heard  that 40% of pregnancies in Australia were unintended, and women living in rural areas were 1.4 times more likely to experience unintended pregnancies than women in metropolitan areas.

One driver of this was that health professionals were blocked from working to the full scope of their practice, Professor Bateson said.

“We do know that GPs are well placed to be able to provide medical abortion, but they’re often dissuaded from doing so. We know there’s low rates because they’re not getting the support from their local public hospitals,” she said.

“We know that GPs are well able to insert IUDs, but you may find that your local GP in your country town isn’t doing that because they haven’t been able to access training.

“But the key issue … is around nurses and nurses and midwives working to their full scope of practice. We know that they’re very skilled at being able to put in long-acting reversible contraceptives, IUDs and implants. They do that in family planning clinics, but not in general practice because there aren’t the pathways to do that.”

Professor Bateson said there were “great inequities” in access to contraception, which should be affordable for all women. For example, the new progestin-only pill and the copper IUD were not subsidised on the PBS and were out of reach for many women, she said.

Australia was lagging behind other countries in the uptake of long-acting reversible contraception (LARC), with the latest reliable data showing that only 12% of women were using one of the long-acting methods, she said.

“That’s very low compared to somewhere like Sweden, for instance, where over 25% are using an IUD, and in France 27%.”

Reasons for that low uptake includes a lack of contraceptive literacy from consumers, time-poor GP clinics and misinformation about long-acting reversible contraception, she added.

Senior Medical Advisor at Organon ANZ, Dr Alana Philips, said prescribers needed time to provide contraceptive counselling and advice to consumers to enable them to make an informed decision.

She also recommended expanding the 1800 My Options helpline from Victoria to a national service and continuing to fund the AusCAPPS network of healthcare professionals with an interest in LARC and medical abortion.

Dr Harvey said the MBS telehealth items for sexual and reproductive health care should be continued to improve access to reproductive health care and contraception information, advice on LARCs and providing medical termination of pregnancy.

She said collecting and publishing data around sexual reproductive health care and unplanned pregnancies, as well as involving the public hospital system in providing terminations and contraception would help reduce unintended pregnancies.

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