Local study: More NFP education needed for medical professionals

| Bridget Ryder | July 19, 2016 | 0 Comments
Sarah Slattery, left, physician assistant at AALFA Family Clinic in White Bear Lake, talks with patient Becca Kempenich, who was there with her husband, Dan, and newborn son, Xander. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Sarah Slattery, left, physician assistant at AALFA Family Clinic in White Bear Lake, talks with patient Becca Kempenich, who was there with her husband, Dan, and newborn son, Xander. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

One day on her run, Abigail House Tierney’s mind wandered to her future as a physician assistant student at St. Catherine University in St. Paul. She appreciated what she had learned from shadowing at the AALFA Family Clinic in White Bear Lake, a pro-life medical practice that applies the Creighton Model of natural family planning to women’s health care. But she wondered what further NFP education she would receive.

Starting the program in September 2013, she soon discovered she wasn’t the only one interested in NFP. With three of her fellow classmates, she turned her query into a thesis on the dissemination of NFP knowledge among PA students. They concluded that not just the quantity, but, more important, the quality of NFP education needed to improve in order to increase physician assistants’ advocacy of it.

Sarah Slattery, one of the collaborators and now a PA at the AALFA clinic, hopes it fills a gap in NFP research.

“It seemed to us a lot of doctors don’t mention NFP, and there is a huge gap in research [about] how much NFP is taught in medical curriculum,” said Slattery, a parishioner of Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul.

Marissa Enfield and Marta Khan, both PAs, were the other researchers.

What they discovered coincided with their own experience.

“The results were predictable, but it’s good to have the data,” said Tierney, now a PA in emergency and urgent care at HealthEast and a parishioner at Our Lady of Lourdes in Minneapolis.

Prior knowledge prevails

The four students surveyed the interest, knowledge, attitudes and amount of NFP education among PA students in three local programs — St. Catherine University, Augsburg College in Minneapolis and Bethel University in St. Paul. They found that these programs gave students comparatively less education about NFP than artificial contraception, and that their professional training had little impact on the attitudes and understanding of NFP that students brought with them into the program. The amount of knowledge the students had about NFP prior to starting PA school was the main predictor of their willingness to mention it to their future patients.

They also found that students who had heard about NFP through their church were more likely to be knowledgeable about NFP before starting PA school.

“I felt like there was some kind of filter that went through their [PA students’] heads based on preconceptions of their own,” Tierney said.

While 89 percent of PA students were familiar with NFP through both prior knowledge and their PA training, of those who were “well educated” about NFP before starting PA school, 67 percent believed it reliable for avoiding or achieving pregnancy.

Students with a basic knowledge of NFP were split: 43 percent were unsure of its effectiveness in avoiding or achieving pregnancy, 31 percent saw it as unreliable, and 26 percent believed it to be reliable. Among students who reported knowing nothing about NFP prior to schooling, 100 percent said it was unreliable.

Those with more knowledge before PA school were also more likely to report they would mention NFP to patients in the future. Those with less knowledge of NFP before their training were less likely to do so.

National NFP Awareness Week
July 24-30

Natural Family Planning Awareness Week is a national educational campaign of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The dates highlight the anniversary of Blessed Pope Paul VI’s encyclical “Humanae Vitae” (July 25), which articulates Catholic beliefs about human sexuality, conjugal love and responsible parenthood. The dates also coincide with the feast of Sts. Joachim and Anne (July 26), Mary’s parents.

More instruction needed

It struck the researchers that respondents’ professional training didn’t seem to affect their attitudes and understanding of NFP one way or another. They concluded that the instruction on NFP was too thin to overcome the perceptions about NFP that PAs brought into the program, whether positive or negative.

In their four-week course on women’s health at St. Catherine University, two hours were spent on contraception and one hour on NFP. Tierney also found it odd that the pharmacist who lectured on contraception also gave the lecture on NFP, which is not a pharmaceutical practice. Tierney characterized their NFP training as “neither positive nor negative. It was just vague.”

Those surveyed in the thesis also generally received two hours of lectures on contraception and one hour or less on NFP.

Slattery, Tierney and their other two collaborators finished their thesis in time for their graduation in December 2015.

Slattery hopes to soon complete training to become certified as a Natural Procreative Technology (NaPro) practitioner. NaPro applies the Creighton Model to women’s health care. For women seeking this kind of health care, the website http://www.onemoresoul.com lists several certified practitioners in the metro area.

Despite the study’s findings, Carolyn Haberman has noticed that physicians are starting to appreciate how NFP relates to women’s health. A parishioner at Nativity of Our Lord and an NFP instructor with the Couple to Couple League, Haberman has gone to of few physicians in the Twin Cities’ health care systems who aren’t specifically trained in NFP.

“They kind of knew what I was talking about when I showed them my charts. They have understood there is a difference between the old [rhythm] method and the new methods and the science behind the new methods,” Haberman said.

For women, getting the kind of health care they want is a matter of advocacy, she advises, but for NFP-based treatment of specific women’s health problems, she has found that the best option is a specially trained physician.

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