It seems like you can do just about anything with your smartphone these days. And, now, women in California are able to order birth control from the palm of their hand. Dr. Jason Hwang, who is licensed with the Medical Board of California and is a graduate of Harvard Business School, is bringing access and equality to telemedicine with his new app, PolkaDoc.
Hwang and his team offer a convenient alternative to seeing a physician in person for a birth-control prescription. It's a solution, according to him, to a pressing social need for women, as half of pregnancies in the United States are unplanned.
To use PolkaDoc, a woman pays a one-time e-visit fee of $15, submits a photo of her driver’s license or other identification to verify that she is over 18, and fills out a survey that is screened by an algorithm to assess her eligibility to safely take the medication. (According to Hwang, the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization have approved these guidelines, which are clear-cut and regimented and therefore efficient when coded into a digital screening process.) From there, a prescription is sent electronically to the pharmacy of choice, and the patient pays for the medication at pickup.
"$15 is a small price to pay to not schedule an appointment, wait for the appointment, and then wait at the doctor’s office for it,” says Hwang. “We have patients from all social statuses: busy people, students or those at work, people who have transportation problems — it’s a lot of different issues that play into not accessing birth control."
Since the launch of PolkaDoc in February, roughly two dozen patients have received prescriptions. One woman who used the app had recently moved to California but couldn’t see a doctor to refill her prescription for almost eight weeks. Her pills were going to be gone in two weeks. She found PolkaDoc and was able to avoid a lapse in her regimen.
Another patient didn’t have health insurance and was unable to find a doctor who would see her to issue a prescription; PolkaDoc does not require insurance coverage for a woman to obtain birth control. Yet another realized on her train ride home from work that she was on her last pill. She placed her order during the ride, and the prescription was waiting for her at a local pharmacy when she showed up. "You can literally do it in a car in the parking lot," explains PolkaDoc co-founder Dr. Bonnie Zell.
You can also use international identification to sign up for PolkaDoc, regardless of whether you have proof of citizenship, or a visa, in the United States. "We really don’t care," Hwang says. "If a woman needs birth control, we are going to give it to her."
"Birth control is affordable to most people, a routine thing to prescribe, and can be readily given," he continues. "Why, then, is it that women have unintended pregnancies? Because we made it difficult to get birth control." The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists agrees. In a 2012 report, they shed light on the inaccessibility of birth control and the advantages of a more convenient, over-the-counter option, with 60 percent of women not currently using a highly effective contraceptive method saying they would be more likely to if it was available over the counter.
Whether it's over-the-counter or one download at a time, it boils down to the same overall goal: making birth control more accessible for all women.