Family Planning Information for All: Addressing Myths and Misconceptions about Family Planning

Knowledge Management for Global Health

Neil Pakenham-Walsh

Healthcare Information For All | Coordinator

Join HIFA for a thematic discussion on how to meet the family planning/contraception (FP/C) information needs of the general public, healthcare providers and policy makers in low- and middle-income countries. Join us! 

Nurse with contraceptive pills

Photo by Trevor Snapp for IntraHealth International.

Back in the early 1990s, the International Planned Parenthood Federation asked me to research and write about maternal mortality. It was a true eye-opener: the daily tragedy of maternal deaths—in huge numbers. I learned that most of these deaths are preventable, and many are the consequence of unintended pregnancies, due largely to lack of availability of modern contraceptives. Over the following months and years, my sense of injustice was compounded as I began to learn of other global health inequities. I soon found myself leaving the U.K. National Health Service for a (chequered and unconventional) career in global health.

In 2006 I co-founded HIFA (Healthcare Information For All), a global movement working in collaboration with WHO (and 300 other supporting organisations) to improve the availability and use of reliable healthcare information for all: the general public, frontline healthcare providers, policymakers.... Ten years later HIFA is delighted to be collaborating with K4Health on the HIFA Project on Family Planning and Contraception (FP/C) to address family planning information needs in low- and middle-income countries.

Every person needs access to reliable FP/C information

Our project is based on the premise that every person needs access to reliable FP/C information in the right language and format, at the right time. Information is not everything, but it is a prerequisite for effective health care. HIFA uses the acronym SEISMIC to describe the full range of needs of healthcare providers: Skills, Equipment, Information, Systems support, Medicines, Incentives, and Communication. Improving the availability and use of reliable healthcare information would substantially improve the quality and cost-effectiveness of health services, not only for family planning, but across all areas of health.

Sustainable Development Goals and the right to information

The Sustainable Development Goals target 3.7 specifically recognises the importance of information and education: “By 2030, ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services, including for family planning, information and education, and the integration of reproductive health into national strategies and programs.” Governments indeed have an obligation under international human rights law to ensure their citizens have access to the FP/C information (and other essential healthcare information) they need to protect their own health and the health of others.

K4Health/HIFA survey suggests family planning myths are common

As part of the HIFA Project on Family Planning and Contraception, a new K4Health-supported project to better understand and address information needs around FP/C, HIFA and IntraHealth, a K4Health partner, recently did an informal survey on information needs for family planning and contraception (FP/C). Our 93 international respondents were highly educated academics, researchers, and health professionals.

Respondents identified “access to up-to-date information” as the greatest challenge in accessing FP/C information, followed closely by “internet/library access” and “inability to access publications free of charge.” Respondents cited email as the most frequent way to learn of new developments in FP/C.

I was most surprised by the responses to a question on perceived knowledge. One in four respondents think their friends and colleagues typically believe that “most contraceptives also protect against sexually transmitted infections such as HIV.” One in seven that their friends and colleagues typically believe “contraceptives are dangerous to a woman’s health.” And one in seven that their friends and colleagues believe “contraceptives often cause long-term problems with fertility.” These perceptions relate to the beliefs of friends and colleagues of an elite, highly educated group. We might expect the numbers to be substantially higher in the general population.

This was an informal straw poll, so we cannot draw firm conclusions. However, the implications are profound. If myths and misconceptions are indeed so common among educated groups (and there are of course many other myths we did not explore), how common are they in the population as a whole? As the physical availability of modern contraceptives increases, I would hypothesise that myths and misconceptions are an increasingly important barrier to appropriate selection and uptake of contraceptives.

Too much information

As we look at the information needs of healthcare providers in our survey, many report having “too much information,” making it difficult to identify the specific information (in the right language, format, and technical level) they actually need. This is in line with other HIFA discussions that suggest the weakest part of the global healthcare information system is the organisation and signposting of information (or perhaps lack thereof)—to help people find what they need quickly and easily.

HIFA Project on Family Planning: Join today!

This is the challenge for the HIFA Project on Family Planning and Contraception, which includes hosting several discussions on the HIFA email forum. Each discussion will provide a way to exchange ideas and resources for addressing family planning information needs, with the first discussion running from September 18th to November 20th. Together, with other HIFA members, we will explore the impact of myths and misconceptions on selection and use of contraceptives, trends in knowledge about family planning, what approaches are most effective in increasing access to family planning information and knowledge, and other areas of interest.

We invite you to join HIFA now to receive further information and to participate.