January 14, 2011 — The Iowa Board of Medicine has denied an antiabortion-rights group's request to sanction a physician for using a remotely operated distribution system to provide medication abortion drugs to women in remote areas, the Des Moines Register reports (Leys, Des Moines Register, 1/13).
Planned Parenthood of the Heartland's telemedicine system allows Des Moines-based physicians to conduct video consultations with patients in rural clinics who are seeking abortion services and are no more than nine weeks pregnant. If a physician decides that a patient is an appropriate candidate for a medication abortion, he or she can use a computer command to remotely open a drawer in front of the patient. The patient removes the medication from the drawer and takes the first dose while the physician watches. The remaining medication is taken at home -- the same practice that is used when the first dose is taken with a physician physically present (Women's Health Policy Report, 10/25/2010).
The antiabortion-rights group Operation Rescue filed a complaint with the medical board alleging that the system violated a state law stipulating that only physicians may provide abortions. Planned Parenthood of the Heartland defended the system's legality, arguing that Operation Rescue's claims were simply the group's latest attempt to limit abortion access.
In its letter this week to Operation Rescue, the Board of Medicine wrote, "Although this may not be the outcome you were seeking, you can be assured that your complaint was investigated and the board reached its decision after full review of the investigative record." As is customary, the board did not provide reasons for its decisions. Mark Bowden, the board's executive director, said the board is legally prohibited to speak publicly about complaints unless they result in a formal charge against a physician.
Planned Parenthood, Operation Rescue Respond
Planned Parenthood of the Heartland President Jill June said she was happy with the decision but not surprised. The group's system is similar to other electronic systems that health care providers use to treat rural patients, she said, adding, "It would be turning the clock backwards and really discriminating against people who want and need health care but don't happen to live in urban areas." Sixteen Iowa clinics are wired to the system.
Operation Rescue spokesperson Cheryl Sullenger said the group hopes the board's decision adds urgency to possible legislative efforts that would bar the use of telemedicine in abortion care (Des Moines Register, 1/13).