Awareness of Emergency Contraception on a University Campus: Implications for Health Communication

American college students are identified as an at-risk population for unintended pregnancies. Between 2001 and 2006, the proportion of unintended pregnancies increased from 79% to 83% in women ages 18 and 19 years old and from 59% to 64% in women ages 20-24 years old, (CDC, 2013). In 2006, emergency contraception (EC) was made available for over-the-counter purchase to this at-risk population. Commonly known as the “morning after pill,” EC is a birth control method that can be used to prevent pregnancy for up to 5 days after unprotected sex; it has the potential to greatly reduce the rate of unintended pregnancies among college students.

The purpose of the current study was to investigate students’ awareness and use of EC; to examine from what sources students are learning about EC; and to understand students’ perceptions regarding EC availability on campus. From November 4-11, 2013, we conducted an intercept survey of N = 375 undergraduate students from a large university in the southeast. Research assistants with iPad tablets offered a $5 campus gift card as a survey incentive. Participation was quite high, with very few “refusals.” Results indicated that the majority of students (68%) were female with a mean age of 19.7. Although most respondents were white (61%), African Americans (17%), Asians (17%) and Hispanic/Latino (9%) students were represented. Fifty-two percent of the sample reported having a current romantic partner, with 8% reporting multiple partners.

Results indicated that students had most often heard of EC from their friends (63%), and/or from advertisements (e.g., TV, print, online; 53%). Eight percent of students had never heard of EC. Of the sample, over one-third were unsure about where to get EC, and approximately one-third of students believe that it would be difficult to get EC. Sixty-four percent of students reported that if they were to need EC they would purchase it from an off campus drug store; only 27% who said they would purchase it from the campus health pharmacy (where, incidentally, it is offered for a much lower price). In general, students responded to having EC available in their university’s pharmacy favorably; specifically, students believed that this availability fills an existing need for the students and that it would not be embarrassing to purchase it there. Twenty-one percent of the students reported having ever used EC in the past. Of these previous users, 71% were females and 29% were males (males reporting on partners having used EC). Multivariate analyses are currently underway to understand how variables such as gender, race, relationship status, and EC source information are associated with perceptions of EC awareness and accessibility.

The implications of this study for health communication efforts to promote EC are far reaching. Our results suggest that a significant minority of students lack sufficient information about EC, and, that a majority of students are unaware of the availability of EC on campus. Health communication efforts should better promote EC awareness and should better educate young adults on where to access EC.