Introduction: Abortion has been legal in the Australian state of Victoria since 2008 and medical termination of pregnancy (MTOP) available since 2012. While these developments were expected to improve Victorian rural women’s access to abortion, this has not been borne out in practice. General practitioners (GPs), particularly in rural areas, are women’s first point of contact when faced with an unintended pregnancy. The objective of this study was to understand rural GPs’ knowledge and practice in relation to unintended pregnancy and referral for abortion, using the Grampians region of Victoria as a case study. Parts of this region, like other rural and regional areas, experience teenage pregnancy rates double the national average and more than four times that of major cities, and access to abortion services is known to be limited. Findings from the study will inform rural health service development to improve rural women’s access to abortion.
Method: This paper reports on the findings from a mixed methods study which explored GP knowledge, understanding and practice in relation to unintended pregnancy services in seven local government areas in the Grampians. Data was collected between April and August 2017. GPs from all practices in this region were invited to participate. A total of 84 GPs were approached, 23 (27%) completed the survey, and of these, 5 also took part in a semi-structured telephone phone interview. The quantitative survey data were analysed descriptively while the open-ended survey responses and qualitative interviews were analysed thematically.
Results: When women present with an unintended pregnancy, 38% of GPs surveyed indicated that in this situation they ‘refer to a colleague due to a conscientious objection’. No GP always discussed tele-health medical abortion with women and only 27% said that they ‘always’ discussed medical abortion with women. A range of views were expressed about the adequacy and location of services, with the majority indicating services in the region were limited or inadequate. Interviews with GPs who had conscientious objections to abortion indicated that ‘conscientious objection’ occurred in different forms and included a range of behaviours. Rural GPs who were interested in becoming MTOP providers faced barriers such as lack of access to timely ultrasounds and surgical backup.
Conclusion(s): The results indicate high levels of conscientious objection and wide variation in knowledge of services. In addition, the provision of tele-abortion and medical abortion is extremely limited in this region, even while these are considered ideal ways to address rural access to abortion. It is likely the promise of tele-abortion is far from fulfilled in Grampians region and possibly in other rural areas in Victoria. There is a need to improve GPs’ knowledge of available services and adherence to legal and professional obligations, and there are clear opportunities to achieve this, with all interview participants expressing strong support for the prevention of unintended pregnancy, and many highlighting the need for good support for women up until the point of termination.