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Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Laura Shane-McWhorter, professor emeritus of the Department of Pharmacotherapy at the University of Utah, speaks at an event celebrating 35 years of the Pregnancy Risk Line call center at a Utah Department of Health office in Millcreek on Friday, May 17, 2019.

SALT LAKE CITY — Telephones have changed since Dr. John Carey co-founded the Pregnancy Risk Line — a call center that provides mothers-to-be with free, anonymous information about pregnancy and breastfeeding — in 1984.

And the Pregnancy Risk Line, now known as the MotherToBaby Utah Program, has changed with them.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Dr. Joseph Miner, executive director of the Utah Department of Health, speaks at an event celebrating 35 years of the Pregnancy Risk Line call center at a Utah Department of Health office in Millcreek on Friday, May 17, 2019.

The Utah Department of Health program, in partnership with the University of Utah, celebrated 35 years of existence Friday. In that time, the hotline has served nearly 300,000 parents and health care providers, and has developed into a service that can be accessed via phone call, text message, email, or online instant message.

As the internet grows, the amount of medical misinformation spread online has, too, health officials say, creating new challenges for the call center. But the evolution of technology has also created new ways to interact with patients who might be hesitant to pick up the phone.

"It’s really been a double-edged sword," Carey said of the internet. "It’s fueled misinformation. But it’s also allowed good resources to become available."

As a young doctor in the 1970s, Carey said, he was struck by the questions he heard from parents whose children were born with congenital birth defects. A common question was: Is this my fault?

"There was a sense of profoundness to these questions that moved me early on in my career," Carey, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah and current medical director of the MotherToBaby Utah program, recalled.

He went on to co-found the Pregnancy Risk Line, a telephone number parents and health care providers could call to ask medical specialists whether and how certain substances, medications or illnesses might affect pregnancy and breastfeeding. Its founding followed a surge of often-inaccurate medical reporting in the 1970s surrounding the causes of birth defects, as well as several high-profile lawsuits dealing with similar issues. The center took its first call on Mother’s Day. Since then, specialists have fielded between 6,000 and 10,000 questions per year in English and, more recently, Spanish.

From the beginning, a central tenet of the hotline has been the delivery of anonymous information and advice without personal opinion or admonishment, especially important in cases where a mother has consumed alcohol or used illegal substances.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Registered nurse Al Romeo poses for a portrait at his desk in the Pregnancy Risk Line call center, which is celebrating 35 years of service, at a Utah Department of Health office in Millcreek on Friday, May 17, 2019.

"We give mom the opportunity to ask us those very sensitive questions," said Al Romeo, an information specialist at the call center. "We give those answers without judgment."

For parents who may not feel comfortable asking those sensitive questions over the phone, the ability to send a text message, email or instant message instead offers an additional layer of anonymity.

"If something is really private, it’s less threatening than talking on the phone and fearing they might get some judgment," Carey said.

Parents aren’t the only ones who use the program. Pharmacists and other health care providers also regularly call the line for information.

Dr. Laura Shane-McWhorter, a professor emeritus at the University of Utah, said she first encountered the Pregnancy Risk Line as a doctoral student.

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"At that time, I was really amazed with the level of scholarly research that was being provided by people at the Pregnancy Risk Line," Shane-McWhorter said.

Today, she continued, it remains a useful tool for parents and health care providers alike.

"There are many women concerned about whether or not they should continue taking their very important medications," Shane-McWhorter said. "I think it’s a very, very important resource that…we are so fortunate to have in this day and age."