As a result of the sex tech revolution, a growing number of women are turning to their mobile phones for birth control.
At least half a dozen digital ventures across the country, ranging from apps to nonprofits like Planned Parenthood, are providing Americans with mobile access to birth control, the New York Times reported. One such app, Lemonaid, charges just $15 for a doctor to review a user's
medical information and send a birth control pill prescription to their local pharmacy.
The New York Times piece explores a number of potential factors driving the rise in telemedicine for reproductive health, from women wanting to save money on their prescriptions to simple convenience. Yet one of the recurring themes of the piece is the shame young women feel when trying to ask their doctors about birth control.
Young women still face slut shaming from their health care providers when they try to get birth control, which is why many are turning to apps and websites to obtain access to contraception. "Privacy is a big issue," Peter Ax, the 57-year-old CEO of Arizona-based birth control app PRJKT Ruby, said in a phone interview. "We've consistently heard that consumers feel this is a private conversation and it's such more comfortable online than in a face to face setting."
It's not unheard of for some medical professionals to deny patients access to contraception for personal reasons, such as religion. For instance, Reddit user ilikemuffins21 described an experience at the doctor's office that left her in tears: "I sit down and list all the medication I need refilled. When I get to birth control he smiles and says 'I'm sorry, I don't prescribe birth control for religious reasons, you'll have to come in another day when I'm not here.'"
In Wisconsin, Reddit user pau85 described a similar experience: "The nurse said, 'Oh yeah, I don't think he is going to prescribe birth control to you then, he has a religious belief against it' ... [It] was pretty uncomfortable being in the room with the doctor at this point."
Women can also be publicly shamed when picking up their prescriptions at pharmacies and health clinics. Reddit user Vdd993, for instance, described her pharmacist yelling about her birth control within earshot of other customers, a treatment she was spared when she picked up other types of medication. "I think she's trying to shame me or make me feel embarrassed that I'm picking up birth control," she wrote.
State laws regarding contraception differ: While 21 states allow all minors to have access to contraception without parental consent regardless of age, these laws vary widely depending on various circumstances. Navigating these state laws can be a challenge for startups in the telemedicine industry. "We have a legal department that looks at state regulation...each state requires a different business model," Ax said. "It's a barrier for entry in the business."
Ax only provides prescriptions to users 16 and up, though not for a specific "medical reason" — "I think it's controversial in some states and we've tried to stay out of that controversy," Ax said. Similarly, Dr. Jason Hwang, Lemonaid's chief medical officer, said it was "a political decision" to avoid giving prescriptions to minors altogether. "We didn't want people who might be under 18, who might still have parents who would get upset," Hwang told the New York Times. However, some apps, such as California-based startup Nurx, offer birth control to users as young as 14, depending on the law in their state.
As women's health clinics continue to close across the country, these digital options are becoming more and more crucial for those who can't access in-person services. For instance, Planned Parenthood's Planned Parenthood Care app provides video visits with health care professionals. Since its launch in Minnesota and Washington in 2014, the app has reached approximately 19,000 users. The digital service has since expanded to serve Hawaii, Idaho and Alaska as well.
Even in 2016, it's difficult for some women to access birth control — which is why the rising number of birth control apps could be great for tech-savvy people who want to have the freedom to make their own decisions regarding their reproductive health.
"It's too soon to tell the market value," Ax said when asked how he envisions the future of the reproductive telemedicine industry. "But it's certainly in the billions ... We see women feeling empowered to take control of their reproductive health."