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Tried and True
It’s more than a slogan. “Care. No Matter What” is Planned Parenthood’s guiding principle and a mandate now more than ever as the organization faces its latest external threat: the novel coronavirus. But because of its ability to adapt swiftly in times of crisis, Planned Parenthood has, thus far, been able to meet its latest challenge by not only surviving but expanding certain offerings to provide easier-to-access services to patients — in some cases, from home. Lori Carpentier, Planned Parenthood of Michigan President and CEO, described the ways her organization has been nimble amid the pandemic and also the effects it’s had on Planned Parenthood as a whole.
“The governor, in one of her first executive orders, made it clear that procedures and services that had to do with pregnancy care — and in our case avoiding pregnancy — were appropriate,” Carpentier said, explaining that Planned Parenthood provides an “essential service” and was thus allowed to remain open at a time when many health services were forced to temporarily suspend operation. She said that every measure is being taken to protect staff and patients.
Proof of how quickly Planned Parenthood responded to the needs of its patients and the constraints of our current environment can vividly be seen on two fronts: the rapid expansion of access to medication abortion via telemedicine and a new smartphone app designed to order birth control and urinary tract infection treatment.
How it Works
“We started the expansion in January,” Carpentier said, in reference to telemedicine access to medication abortion. As she explained, the telemedicine arrangement works the same as a regular medication abortion, but the patient who comes to one of the health centers meets virtually with the physician who is somewhere else in the state. Carpentier pointed out this is the law in Michigan, but that an advanced clinician is perfectly capable of talking with the patient, ensuring the patient provides appropriate informed consent and explaining how the procedure works. After that, one of the licensed personnel at the health center where the patient was seen dispenses the pills and monitors the patient afterward.
“The original plan was to roll that out in our nine centers that were presently offering medication abortion in the center over the next nine months or so, with about one a month,” Carpentier said. “But instead … once the COVID virus hit, one of the first things we did was to accelerate that with some group training … and we rolled it out in about 10 days instead.”
The rest of the 15 health centers that had not offered medication abortion services will be offering it both in-person and via telemedicine within the next six weeks.
Another service, Planned Parenthood Direct, was introduced just recently. It allows any user of an Android or iPhone to download an app, fill out a health questionnaire that is reviewed by a Planned Parenthood clinician, and if approved, receive a prescription for birth control (pill, patch or ring) or treatment for a urinary tract infection. In the case of birth control, it can be purchased through Planned Parenthood’s online pharmacy and sent to the person who requested it or the prescription can be sent to a local pharmacy. About 90 percent of the requests for birth control are approved. Because the treatment of urinary tract infections is a little more involved, about half of those requests are able to be fulfilled, but Carpentier emphasized that if someone can’t get treatment via the app, they can access care at one of Planned Parenthood’s health centers.
So far, Planned Parenthood Direct has been a huge success in Michigan.
“We had the largest kickoff in the country,” Carpentier said. “I think that is very much due to the coronavirus situation. I think people are really eager to do whatever they can from home.”
She said the organization plans to continue offering the service once the shelter-in-place orders are lifted; an added benefit is that it reaches people who don’t live near one of their health centers. Soon, Michigan will be the beta test site to offer emergency contraception pills through the app, too.
“We are diligently working to offer other services that will allow people to get services without being seen, and that would be direct-to-consumer where people would actually have an interaction with a clinician from their hand-held or tablet device and get whatever they need through the mail, etc. and never have to leave their home,” Carpentier said.
People can expect direct-to-consumer offerings beginning in the coming weeks. In addition, starting this fall, Planned Parenthood health centers will offer the flu vaccine for the first time, in anticipation of being a coronavirus vaccine provider once it is developed and becomes widely available.
Just as Planned Parenthood’s services have adapted well to meet the needs of the community, Carpentier acknowledged it’s been challenging for her staff.
“I think that the observation that we are going to be a society that has to deal with a whole group of people that are now dealing with some level of post-traumatic stress disorder is really true,” she said. “I think this has been a trauma.”
She said some of the organization’s employees were furloughed, but that Planned Parenthood tried to ensure that workers were able to secure all the unemployment and stimulus relief for which they are eligible.
“The fact of the matter is this is just a tough time,” Carpentier said, mentioning workers who might be less food secure or facing intimate partner violence concerns.
“We’ve made sure that our employee aid program is really available to them for counseling for financial issues or a whole host of things. I think we’ve been lucky; we’ve had very little in the way of COVID infections among our staff members but we understand the level of stress this has put on them,” she said.
Now the organization is making plans to bring some people back to work and manage the organization’s culture in light of collectively enduring this ongoing crisis.
Carpentier further described how Planned Parenthood is proactively responding to forces beyond its control, as it has throughout its 100-plus year history.
“I happen to be part of a Southeast Michigan CEO group … and what I found when this pandemic hit was that they were significantly less prepared to deal with something that was an outside force that really took control out of their hands and they have not developed the kind of musculature, if you will, that Planned Parenthood does, of being able to roll with these kinds of things,” Carpentier said. “We took this seriously; we are absolutely tapped into public health … so we took a very active public health stance.
“We know how to adapt. We know what it’s like, because our history … has always dictated that we are ready for the next punch that comes from an external source — usually, whoever’s in the White House and the administration that’s involved,” she continued. “So we do know how to do this. We are uniquely equipped to be able to manage something like this and I think that’s why our response was so swift and we have had really good outcomes.”
In further spirit of adapting, Planned Parenthood’s two spring fundraisers were transformed into online events. One already took place; the other Virtual Evening for Planned Parenthood: Stay In, Help Out, will be held Thursday, May 21, from 7 to 7:30 p.m.
Carpentier stressed that it’s now more important than ever to support the kind of safe, accessible health care that Planned Parenthood provides.
“There’s never been a more difficult time,” Carpentier said. “We know that’s true for so many organizations. So far, we’re seeing people really step up and are always awed in terms of the response we get from Michiganders. As we are innovating faster than we ever dreamed that we could, which is a good lesson for all of us … we need to make sure that people understand the importance of the care that Planned Parenthood gives and that we continue to be the haven place for folks that have reproductive and sexual health care needs, including abortion services.”
Find out more information at plannedparenthood.org.