Millions of women, including many who receive some care from other health care providers, turn to family planning clinics for their contraceptive care, according to "Specialized Family Planning Clinics in the U.S.: Why Women Choose Them and Their Role in Meeting Women's Health Care Needs," by Jennifer Frost et al., of the Guttmacher Institute. Among women surveyed at family planning clinics nationwide, 41% reported that these clinics were their only source of health care in the past year, while 59% had made a visit to another provider but still chose a family planning clinic for contraceptive care.

"Publicly funded family planning clinics play a critical role in providing millions of women basic sexual and reproductive health services," says lead author Jennifer Frost. "This care allows women and couples to avoid unintended pregnancies, plan their families and obtain a wide range of preventive care services critical to their health and well-being."

To better understand the ongoing role of family planning clinics in a changing health care landscape, the authors surveyed 2,094 women receiving services at 22 clinics that specialize in the provision of contraceptive services. All of the sites included in the survey were located in communities that also had comprehensive primary care providers, such as community health centers. The majority of women participating in the survey were younger than 25 (56%), had no children (58%), were neither married nor cohabiting (63%), and were poor or low-income (61% had an income below the poverty line, while 25% had incomes at 100–200% of poverty).

The women surveyed chose to seek care at a specialized family planning clinic, even though they had other choices in their communities. The reasons reported as very important by at least 80% of women were that the staff are respectful and knowledgeable about women's health and that women can obtain confidential, affordable care. Other reasons for choosing the family planning clinic that were very important to many women were clinic accessibility and the availability of the contraceptive methods of their choice at the clinic.

There was little variation among respondents from major demographic subgroups. However, more teens reported that method availability and confidentiality were important than did older women. In fact, one-third of teens who reported having insurance coverage but did not use it for their services did so because they were concerned that someone else, most likely a parent through whose policy they are insured, would find out.

"This study shows the unique role family planning clinics play in enabling women to access the contraceptive services they need. It also shows that for four in ten clients, a family planning clinic is their only source of health care, which makes these clinics a vital entry point to the health care system for millions of American women," says study author Rachel Benson Gold.

"Specialized Family Planning Clinics in the U.S.: Why Women Choose Them and Their Role in Meeting Women's Health Care Needs" appears in the November/December 2012 issue of the journal Women's Health Issues.

For more information on the role of family planning clinics as the entry point to the health care system, click here.