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Natural family planning: people ‘need to know’

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More women want to use natural family planning methods, but most doctors are ill-equipped to provide them with the information, says a Sydney GP

A Sydney GP has pointed out the gap between an increasing demand for alternatives to hormonal contraception and the awareness of most GPs about modern natural methods of family planning.

Dr Michael Panetta says he has witnessed an increase during his 18-year career in the number of women seeking alternatives to hormonal contraceptives, particularly the Pill, and openness to natural methods of avoiding a pregnancy.

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Many women have never been made aware of natural methods of family planning, says Dr Michael Panetta, probably because most doctors have had ‘limited or no instruction’ in these methods.
Many women have never been made aware of natural methods of family planning, says Dr Michael Panetta, probably because most doctors have had ‘limited or no instruction’ in these methods.

But most doctors are ill-equipped to provide them with information on these and assume they are unreliable.

“Many women have never been made aware of non-pharmaceutical, natural methods of family planning, probably because most members of my profession would have had limited or no instruction in these methods during their training and, in particular, be aware of their similar efficacy when compared to artificial pharmaceutical methods,” says Dr Panetta, who assists with the medical component of training natural family planning (NFP) instructors in the Sympto-Thermal Method.

“The vast majority of my colleagues would not offer this as an option when giving family planning advice to women, men or couples.”

Marian Corkill, senior trainer in the Billings Ovulation Method, agrees that there is a lack of reliable information in the community about natural methods for family planning and reproductive health, but reports signs of a new generation of doctors and other health professionals open to learning about fertility awareness methods.

“We do get doctors interested in our [programs],” she says.

“Doctors who are interested in women’s health tell us they do not get this information in their training and express surprise at the solid science that backs the Billings Ovulation Method. Many have heard of the method but tell us they thought it was based on rhythm.

“Our evaluations are always extremely positive, with many doctors telling us it was one of the best education sessions they have attended.

“As a result we then get referrals from them when patients are wishing to achieve a pregnancy or request a natural method for family planning.”

She says a training program on the method held at the University of Notre Dame’s Sydney campus for medical students and doctors earlier this year was met with “tremendous enthusiasm”.

“We are hoping to continue to work with this group when they have time in their busy study schedule.”

Dr Panetta believes the rise in interest in fertility awareness methods, such as the Billings Ovulation Method, the Creighton Model, and the Sympto-Thermal Method, reflects both the growing interest in alternatives to pharmaceuticals more generally, and also a growing awareness of the possible negative effects of disrupting natural hormonal cycles.

Intensified media coverage of the increased risk with the use of hormonal contraception of blood clots, a link to breast cancer and other possible dangerous and unpleasant side effects “has been pivotal in some women’s desire for re-evaluating their need for artificial agents”, says Dr Panetta.

Several highly publicised lawsuits and a possible Australian class action against pharmaceutical manufacturer Bayer have highlighted the problems with popular contraceptive pills Yasmin and Yaz in recent months.

At the same time former popular US talk-show host Ricki Lake has garnered widespread grassroots support to help fund a new documentary called Sweetening the Pill, based on a book of the same name, which will largely highlight the negative effects of hormonal contraceptives and the benefits of fertility awareness methods to women and society.

Dr Panetta would also like more doctors to explain that pharmaceutical contraceptions work principally in a way that ends a life already conceived, rather than purely as a preventative.

“It is my experience that some women, while accepting a contraceptive effect, do not accept an abortifacient effect on moral grounds,” he says.
“In a world where much information is readily available online, but not always based on science, we as doctors and educators in family planning have a duty to give reliable, objective and informed options to those seeking a solution to medical and fertility issues.”

Billings LIFE, officially known as the Ovulation Method Research and Reference Centre of Australia, provides one and two-day programs that earn doctors accreditation points with the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners.

These programs also receive accreditation points from the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine, MidPLUS (midwives) and ATMS (natural health practitioners).

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