The Essential Nature of Contraception in Population Health Research

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Guest Blogger

Jessica Hanson, PhD, Assistant Scientist, Sanford Research

Population health is the newest buzz word within the field of public health. According to an article by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), population health research is “an interdisciplinary field focusing on the health outcomes of groups of individuals.”1 In addition, population health researchers “conduct studies that seek to characterize, explain, and influence the levels and distributions of health within and across populations.”1 But not all research done with human populations can be considered population health research. The RWJF article concludes that population health isn’t just a matter of enrolling human subjects but that it must address “health outcomes, health determinants, and (the) policies and interventions that link the two.”1,2

As well, one cannot study population and public health without also recognizing the essential nature of contraception and family planning. Along with immunizations, motor-vehicle safety, workplace safety, and control of infectious diseases, family planning is cited as one of the top 10 public health achievements of the 20th century by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).3 According to the CDC, the use of birth control to achieve desired birth spacing and family size has led to the better health of infants, children, and women, and it has also improved the social and economic role of women.4 In addition, Healthy People 2020 concludes that prevention of unplanned pregnancy should remain a major focus within maternal, infant, and child health research. Recent efforts to address health disparities in maternal and child health have employed a “life course” perspective to health promotion and disease prevention.5 As is shown in major population health research, prevention of unintended pregnancy can prevent a host of public health concerns, such as delayed initiation of prenatal care, poor maternal health, and preterm birth.”5

Related to health outcomes, leading researchers in the area of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), the leading known preventable cause of disability in the world, emphasize that birth control can and must be used in reducing risk for FAS. This is because pregnancy is often not recognized during the early, but developmentally critical, weeks of pregnancy, therefore the “maximum prevention benefit” is to work with women at the greatest risk for an alcohol-exposed pregnancy before they become pregnant.6 Research happening in South Dakota, specifically within the Population Health Group at Sanford Research, is currently leading the nation in addressing FAS prevention using this preconceptual framework. I work with tribes in the Northern Plains and several national collaborators to develop, implement, and evaluate public health programs on the prevention of alcohol-exposed pregnancies with preconceptional American Indian women. The results of our studies and others have found that our family planning efforts are having a significant impact on reducing risk for alcohol-exposed pregnancies.7 Therefore, efforts that want to prevent alcohol- and other substance-exposed pregnancies should consider a focus on family planning, along with reduction in substance use.

Please read more about our efforts to reduce alcohol-exposed pregnancies among preconceptual American Indian women here:

In addition, Sanford Research has strong statistical and methodological expertise in-house with its Collection Methods, Management, and Analysis of Data (COMMAND) Core. The mission of the COMMAND Core is to provide study assistance from the design phase all the way through data presentation. With a broad range of statistical expertise, COMMAND Core staff are capable of applying the most efficient techniques to address research questions using the data sets generated from both observational studies and laboratory experiments. Please read more about the COMMAND Core here: