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iPLEDGE allows at-home pregnancy tests during pandemic


Patients taking isotretinoin can use telemedicine to meet with their prescribing physicians instead of in-person visits, and female patients can use at-home pregnancy tests to comply with the requirements of the iPLEDGE program during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an update program posted on the iPLEDGE website.

Mandibular acne on a woman's face Obencem/Thinkstock

The program’s other requirements – the prescription window and two forms of birth control – remain unchanged.

The change follows recent guidance from the Department of Health & Human Services and the Food and Drug Administration regarding accommodations for medical care and drugs subject to Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategies (REMS) in the midst of a public health emergency that requires most people to remain in their homes except for essential services.

Allowing females to take at-home pregnancy tests and communicate the results to physician according to their preference is “a game changer for the middle of a pandemic, obviously,” Neil Goldberg, MD, a dermatologist in Westchester County, New York, said in an interview. “These are patients who don’t need to spend time outside just to get pregnancy tests done. It makes it a lot easier.”

Dr. Goldberg is frustrated, however, that the accommodations have not been more widely publicized; he discovered the change incidentally when speaking to an iPLEDGE program representative to request a waiver for a patient who had taken her pregnancy test too early. The program had denied a similar request for a 15-year-old patient of his the previous week, despite the patient being abstinent and having been in shelter-in-place for several weeks.

“The size of your notice [on the website] should be proportionate to how important it is,” Dr. Goldberg said, and the small red box on the site is easy to miss. By contrast, asking anyone to leave their homes to go to a lab for a pregnancy test in the midst of a global pandemic so they can continue their medication would be putting patients at risk, he added.

Hilary Baldwin, MD, Acne Treatment & Research Center, Morristown, NJ and Brooklyn, NY

Dr. Hilary Baldwin

The iPLEDGE program is designed in part to ensure unplanned pregnancies do not occur in females while taking the teratogenic acne drug. But the rules are onerous and difficult even during normal times, pointed out Hilary Baldwin, MD, medical director of the Acne Treatment and Research Center in New York City and past president of the American Acne and Rosacea Society.

Male patients taking isotretinoin must visit their physician every month to get a new no-refills prescription, but females must get a pregnancy test at a Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments–certified lab, which must then provide physical results to the prescribing physician. The doctor enters the negative pregnancy test and the two forms of birth control the patient is taking in the iPLEDGE program site.

Then the patient must take an online test at home to acknowledge they understand what it means to not get pregnant and enter the two forms of birth control they are using – which must match what the doctor enters – before the pharmacy can dispense the drug. The entire process must occur within 7 days or else the patient has to wait 19 days before starting the process over.

“We run a very tight schedule for girls. And every month, we would worry that something would interfere, a snow storm or something else, and that they wouldn’t be able to complete their objectives within the 7-day period,” Dr Baldwin said in an interview. “It was always difficult, and now with us not being able to see the patient and the patient not wanting to go to the lab, this became completely impossible.”

Until this change, some patients may not have been able to get their prescription for severe nodulocystic acne, which can cause physical and psychological scarring, and “postponing treatment increases the likelihood of scarring,” Dr. Baldwin pointed out.

Dr. Goldberg’s patients now take a pregnancy test at home and send him a photo of the negative test that he then inserts into their EMR.

According to a March 17 statement from HHS, potential penalties for HIPAA violations are waived for good-faith use of “everyday communication technologies,” such as Skype or FaceTime, for telehealth treatment or diagnostics. The change was intended to allow telehealth services to continue healthcare for practices that had not previously had secure telehealth technology established.

Despite the changes for at-home pregnancy tests for females and in-person visits for all patients, the program has not altered the 7-day prescription window or the requirement to have two forms of birth control.

With reports of a global condom shortage, Dr Baldwin said she has more concerns about her adult patients being able to find a required barrier method of birth control than about her adolescent patients.

“This is a unique opportunity for us to trust our teenage patients because they can’t leave the house,” Dr. Baldwin said. “I’m actually more worried about my adult women on the drug who are bored and cooped up in a house with their significant other.”

Dr. Baldwin and Dr. Goldberg had no relevant disclosures. Dr. Goldberg is a Dermatology News board member.

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