Driving a reproductive health campaign during a pandemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread across the country in early 2020, student pharmacists Brooke Kotlarz, Kaitlan Belocura and Kennedy Erickson worked with various stakeholders in the community to educate and empower individuals on reproductive health. They share their experience of pivoting to a virtual campaign in Washington state and discuss the vital role that pharmacists play in helping to inform local communities about reproductive health. 

By Brooke Kotlarz, Kaitlan Belocura, and Kennedy Erickson

Getting Started

In light of inconsistent and incomplete sexual education offered in public schools throughout the state of Washington, the Washington state Legislature passed Senate Bill 5395 in December 2020 requiring all public schools to teach comprehensive sexual health education by the 2022-2023 school year. Born and raised in Spokane, Brook Kotlarz knows first-hand about the limited nature of sexual education historically offered throughout schools in eastern Washington, prompting the need for this legislation — that is, if any education is offered at all. As a long-time resident and local pharmacy intern, she has become very aware of the myths and concerns that arise when talking to patients about sexual health related medications and how vital it is to dispel misinformation to protect public health. For example, a common misconception is that emergency contraceptives cause abortions. Another common misconception is that emergency contraceptives are best used the morning after having unprotected sex. Through our presentations, we were able to educate our participants that emergency contraceptives do not cause abortions, as they actually work by preventing sperm from reaching an egg to cause fertilization. In addition, emergency contraceptives are more effective if taken as soon as possible after unprotected sex.

To combat this kind of misinformation, the Washington State Pharmacy Association chapter at Washington State University created the PhRESH committee (Pharmacists for Reproductive Education and Sexual Health) headed by third-year student pharmacists Kennedy Erickson, Kaitlan Belocura, and Brook Kotlarz in 2020. The mission of this committee is to promote safe, accessible, and accurate information on reproductive health so that patients can make informed decisions on what is best for them and their reproductive or sexual health needs. The program was brought over from our friends at the University of Washington. Over the past two years, the PhRESH program at WSU has focused mainly on what emergency contraception is and how to get it based on peer feedback and the committee members’ anecdotal experience within the community.

PhRESH delivers its first- ever presentation dismantling common myths related to emergency contraceptives on the WSU Spokane campus in February 2020.

Expanding Reach in a Virtual World

After piloting their first live poster presentation for student pharmacists in February 2020, PhRESH was excited to present this education to broader audiences and made plans to speak at the local community colleges within the city of Spokane throughout the remainder of the semester. However, like every other student organization, plans for in-person events had to be cancelled as a result of the state-mandated lockdown to protect the public from COVID-19. While disheartening, PhRESH was still determined to continue their educational presentations and worked together to adapt their presentations to reach members in the community in a virtual setting.

Throughout the 2020 fall and 2021 spring semester, PhRESH scheduled multiple live Zoom presentations with colleges and universities throughout eastern Washington. Most participants were students ages 18 to 26 who identified as female.  They also created a recorded video version of the presentation to share on their , and with the help of a fellow student pharmacist, Kellyan Nguyen, they were able to share the video with other local organizations like the YWCA, Planned Parenthood, and with a great deal of success. To minimize language barriers, they sought out the help of fellow student pharmacists, Jolyslene Robles Mendoza and Karina Méndez, who translated all materials and videos into Spanish. The videos in both English and Spanish were sent to Raiz, a Planned Parenthood program created by Latinx for Latinx, and the YWCA to educate both staff and patients. Kellyan distributed the brochures in Spanish at a feminine hygiene drive in the winter of 2020. One of the largest presentations they delivered was for the WSU Pullman campus, which drew in over 300 participants! Participants of these presentations received information about how they can access emergency and long-term contraceptives, and where they can get additional help for their sexual health needs. PhRESH kept these virtual presentations fun by integrating interactive trivia and discussion into each session.

Kaitlan Belocura (left), Brook Kotlarz (middle), and Kennedy Erickson (right) present results of their educational outreach over the past year and a half at the Washington State Pharmacy Association’s Annual Meeting in Cle Elum, Washington.

Breaking Down Barriers to Care

Despite integrating information on how to navigate insurance, coupons, and other financial resources,  PhRESH identified through pre- and post-quality assurance surveys that participants from the Pullman campus felt that the cost of over-the-counter emergency contraceptives still posed a financial barrier following the presentation — preventing those participants from accessing them. In response, the PhRESH committee teamed up with CougStarter to fundraise for an emergency contraception drive, where they raised $1,265 to both purchase emergency contraceptives and create educational brochures to give to students on the WSU Pullman campus. Many WSU alumni came together to support and fund the campaign!

Normally, a single emergency contraceptive can cost $30 to $50 at most pharmacies without a prescription. With the money they raised from CougStarter, PhRESH hosted their emergency contraceptive drive on August 17, 2021, where they distributed over 140 free emergency contraceptives with a retail value of over $4,000. Each bag contained candy, one package of emergency contraception, and information about how emergency contraception works and what sexual health resources are available to students on and off campus. All bags were distributed in less than three hours with many Pullman students of different genders surprised and thankful for the free ‘Plan B’.

Our Impact

Recognizing that there was an overall increase in self-reported knowledge and confidence across all presentations, the students took their work further with the help of faculty member Dr. Jennifer Miller to investigate the tangible impact they had made statistically. Out of the 515 total participants, 248 took the pre-survey and 171 took the post-survey. For every question, there was a significant increase in the perceived confidence and knowledge of the participants surrounding emergency contraceptives. In fact, approximately 94% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they were confident in accessing emergency contraceptives both with and without insurance, in comparison to only 42% of respondents agreeing or strongly agreeing prior to the presentations. Equipped with the newfound data, the students prepared a poster presentation that they gave at the WSPA 2021 Annual Meeting on October 29. The culmination of which would not have happened without the help of Dr. Julie Akers, University of Washington’s PhRESH, Jolyslene Robles Mendoza and Karina Méndez.

A Call to Action: Get involved with PhRESH!

Going forward, the students who started the PhRESH committee are excited to see where their efforts could go next. The current PhRESH committee would like to get more student pharmacists involved with the committee and host a second emergency contraception drive in Yakima. By collaborating with the Yakima campus and utilizing the Spanish resources translated by Jolyslene and Karina, we hope to extend our reach and continue to dismantle barriers to reproductive care within that community.