This Earth Day be a Champion for Environmental Science

Did you know that doctors are among the most trusted professionals in this country, specifically with regard to information about climate change? Environmental factors are hurting the health of millions of Americans every day and yet there is still a considerable lack of awareness about the harmful effects of things like extreme weather events, air pollution and other toxins.

As Earth Day approaches, it seems fitting that this year’s campaign is focused on environmental and climate literacy because it reminds us as ob-gyns how important it is for us to participate in the effort by leveraging the trust our patients have in us.  Our partner organization, the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics, has kicked off the week by launching a social media awareness campaign around Earth Day.  You can follow them on Twitter under the handle @FIGOHQ.

Last month, I spoke at the launch of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate Change and Health that has brought together ten associations representing nearly 500,000 physicians, including ACOG, to help increase awareness among the public and policymakers about the negative health effects of climate change on Americans. During my talk, I spoke about the fact that women face some of the greatest risks from climate change over the course of their lives, and especially during pregnancy. In affected regions, climate change puts women at risk of disease, malnutrition, poor mental health, lack of reproductive control, and even death. Additionally, women’s exposure to toxic environmental agents during the preconception and prenatal stages can have a profound and lasting effect on obstetrical and later life outcomes, including increased risk of birth defects and childhood cancer.

In 2016, ACOG adopted a policy which recognizes that climate change is an urgent women’s health concern and a major public health challenge endangering fetal health. In fact, we discover new evidence every day of how it can disturb fetal development. A recent NIH study found that exposure to extreme hot and cold temperatures during pregnancy leads to increased risk of low birth weight in infants.

While the connection between climate change and women’s health may not at first seem obvious, there are a number of ways it directly impacts women’s health.  You can look at them in several categories: a healthy pregnancy starts with clean air, clean water, no toxic chemicals, and stable climate.

Air pollution poses serious risks for women’s health.  It is linked to pregnancy loss, low birth weight babies, and preterm delivery.  Fine particle air pollution affects the placenta in pregnancy, and can interfere with fetal brain development.  Ambient and household air pollution result in 7 million deaths globally per year; these effects are worse in low-resource areas.

Heavy downpours and flooding mixed with high temperatures can spread bacteria, viruses, and chemicals that lead to contaminated food and water. This results in higher levels of methylmercury in fish and shellfish, a known cause of birth defects.

Increased use of pesticides can interfere with the developmental stages of female reproductive functions, including puberty, menstruation and ovulation, menopause, fertility, and the ability to reproduce multiple offspring. These toxic exposures also affect fetal brain development, and contribute to learning, behavioral, or intellectual impairment, as well as neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD and autism spectrum disorder.

Extreme temperatures have fostered increases in the number and geographic range of insects. For example, Zika-carrying mosquitos have led to more than 1,500 infections in pregnant women across the United States and District of Columbia, and more than 3,200 infections in Puerto Rico and U.S. territories. Furthermore, extreme heat during pregnancy is tied to a 31 percent increase in low birthweight babies less than 5.5 pounds.

Unfortunately, in many cases, underserved and vulnerable populations are disproportionately affected by climate change. This includes individuals living in poverty, exposed to toxic materials via their occupation, who lack nutritious food, and live in low quality housing. That’s why access to health care is so critical.

We don’t all have to be experts in environmental science, but we all need to support rigorous scientific investigation into the effects of climate change and toxic environmental agents. With evidence to support us, ob-gyns must be the authoritative voice and help to ensure that the discussion on climate change includes protecting the health and safety of all women and children.

This blog post was co-authored by Nathaniel DeNicola, MD, MSHP, the ACOG liaison to the American Academy of Pediatrics Executive Council on Environmental Health, and social media director for the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics Working Group on Reproductive and Developmental Environmental Health.

Four Ways ACOG Has Impacted Global Women’s Health in Just the Past Year

In 1994, my wife and I arrived for our first two-week mission in the Dominican Republic and were stunned by the line of people waiting outside of the hospital for us. Since medical school more than a decade earlier, we had dreamed of participating in mission projects around the world to help women in dire need of basic medical care. But then my wife began her career as a nurse, we started our family, and after residency I went into private practice. So, that goal went by the wayside. However, our trip to the Dominican Republic quickly reignited our hopes of providing necessary ob-gyn services in low resource settings. Living in the United States, it’s easy to forget that many countries around the world are battling poverty and disease and don’t have the same infrastructure and safety nets we do. After that first trip, I came home to a fully equipped operating room with the proper tools and lights that worked, my wife didn’t have to hold a flashlight during surgery because the power was out. We had carpeting and hot water at home. From that point on, my eyes were opened.

Since that first trip, I’ve continued to travel and offer my services to advance health care in struggling countries. This work has taught me that we can really make a difference in global women’s health by sharing our knowledge and resources as ob-gyns. As my presidential term at ACOG comes to a close, it is an appropriate time to reflect on what we have accomplished from my six-point plan, developed over a year ago, to help improve the health of women and children worldwide, with a focus on training and providing health care around the world.

The first step was to make these kinds of missions more easily identified and attainable. While it’s often not realistic to leave your practice for months; two weeks is doable. That’s why we developed a listing or database of non-profit organizations involved in two-week mission work in which some of our members had participated. Now on the ACOG website there is a global health resource center. ACOG members can discover more information about each organization, check these organizations’ calendars for potential projects, talk with ACOG fellows and junior fellows who have done projects, and sign up. And we must continue to get the word out so more members use and add to the database.

In partnership with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, we’ve also formed and grown the Alliance for Innovation in Maternal Health (AIM), which creates instructional and educational portfolios, or “safety bundles,” to fight high rates of maternal mortality in the United States and now Malawi. Women living in rural areas of Malawi give birth at community health centers that can’t perform operative vaginal deliveries or C-sections. When these situations arise or other complications occur, women are transferred to the central hospital in the city, most often without any attempts at stabilization prior to transport. They are often in poor condition when they arrive, which results in many otherwise preventable maternal deaths. The AIM postpartum hemorrhage bundle has been instituted into practice at both the community health clinic and referral hospital. To date, more than 130 local people have participated in vital simulations to help these patients. And while we do not have formal data on the program yet, we know that several women have received life-saving care because the teams were able to communicate and execute care in a way that they didn’t before. We anticipate many more successes that will hopefully mirror the kinds of gains we have seen here in the United States.

In addition, last year ACOG partnered with Health Volunteers Overseas, a nonprofit group that helps educate and train local health providers in underdeveloped countries in various areas of obstetrics and gynecology. It begins with local providers telling us what they need and then we come up with a plan and work together to make it happen. As of today, we have completed four site assessments and will begin offering global service opportunities for fellows in the four countries by May 2017.

Lastly, in Ethiopia, we received a five-year grant to develop a plan in partnership with the Ethiopian Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists to strengthen their ob-gyn residency training programs and curriculum, improve continuing medical education, support the publishing and accessibility of clinical outcomes research, and develop an ob-gyn examination and certification program. Since its inception, the program has made great strides by working “shoulder-to-shoulder” with the Ethiopians. As a result of this program, there is now interest from other African countries to begin the same program.

The bottom line is, many women around the world are lacking access to quality, evidence-based health care and they are paying the price with their lives. As ob-gyns, we have the power to prevent this by using our skills to help reduce global maternal morbidity and mortality, as well as improved quality of life. These programs are a prime example of how we can achieve that by dedicating some of our time and effort to a cause that is greater than ourselves. While we’ve accomplished a lot, we still have much to do. So, even if you aren’t sure you have the time, consider any way you can contribute. Believe me, it will make a difference.

It’s Time We Talk About Endometriosis

Endometriosis—when the uterine lining grows outside of the uterus, resulting in severe pain, swelling and bleeding—is thought to affect more than 11 percent of all American women between the ages of 15 and 44. This condition impacts 6.5 million U.S. women, and 176 million women worldwide. Yet, it is still not easily recognized. It takes about 10 years from when women experience their first symptoms to receive an endometriosis diagnosis—half that time to recognize and bring up symptoms to a doctor and the other half for the doctor to diagnose it. For Endometriosis Awareness Month this March, we as obstetrician-gynecologists must do our part to raise awareness about the condition with our patients, strive to improve our understanding of the disease, and ensure more timely and accurate diagnoses.

Improving awareness and timely diagnosis of endometriosis helps women avoid unnecessary pain, and decrease infertility rates. Around 40 percent of all women with infertility have endometriosis and, of women diagnosed with endometriosis, about 40 percent experience fertility challenges. Many women struggling with infertility remain undiagnosed; others won’t be diagnosed with endometriosis until they start to experience problems conceiving. It falls to ob-gyns to reverse this trend, particularly as 63 percent of general practitioners feel uncomfortable diagnosing and treating patients with endometriosis, and as many as half are unfamiliar with the three main symptoms of the disease.

Early endometriosis diagnosis and treatment lead to better outcomes. Careful listening and discussion are integral to early detection, as many common symptoms are not so obvious, such as chronic lower back pain and intestinal problems like diarrhea, constipation, bloating and nausea. We can also look for indicators that a woman is at greater risk of having endometriosis, including if she’s in her 30s and 40s; has a close relative who has been diagnosed with endometriosis (which increases risk by five to seven times); and has a higher body mass index (which is thought to promote the development of endometriosis because fat increases estrogen levels).

Raising awareness about endometriosis and increasing its timely diagnosis improves women’s lives. While symptoms may range in terms of severity, nearly all of them take a physical toll on a woman’s day-to-day life—from increasing tiredness to limiting her physical capabilities. It’s time to talk with our patients more regularly about endometriosis, and ensure more women are getting the care and support they need.

Ob-Gyns Can Be the Secret Weapon in the Fight Against Heart Disease

As ob-gyns, we know that the care we provide to women goes far beyond reproductive health. Thirty-five percent of women consider their ob-gyn their sole health care provider, putting us in a unique position to address an array of common health conditions. Since heart disease is the number one killer of women—and February is Heart Health Month—now is a good time to remember the part we can play in changing the outcomes of this devastating disease.

Perhaps the biggest threat of heart disease is lack of awareness of the condition’s prevalence and dangers. Though heart disease causes one in three deaths among American women every year—and 90 percent of women have at least one risk factor for developing heart disease—only one in five believes that heart disease is her greatest health threat, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). Equipped with these statistics, ob-gyns should feel confident initiating a conversation with patients about their heart health.

Helping patients address heart disease risk factors, ideally before a heart disease diagnosis, is key. Nearly two-thirds of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease have no previous symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For many women, the first signs of heart disease are actually the symptoms of a stroke, heart failure or heart attack, when serious damage may have already occurred. However, a number of risk factors are mostly under a patient’s control: an unhealthy diet and/or lack of exercise (both of which can lead to other important risk factors, including being overweight and having high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol, and diabetes); smoking; and drinking to excess. When women are educated about how to make important lifestyle changes, it can be lifesaving. According to the AHA, 330 fewer women are dying from heart disease every day as a result of making heart healthy choices.

There are some factors that are out of a patient’s control, including a family history of heart disease, preterm labor and delivery, and preeclampsia. Ob-gyns can play an essential role by communicating the steps women can take to reduce their odds of a heart disease diagnosis. Even by simply acknowledging and discussing the risks, ob-gyns can make a difference. So, while these conversations aren’t always comfortable, they’re important because many women may not be hearing this information from any other health provider.

Lastly, since the symptoms of heart disease are widely misunderstood, particularly in women, it’s critical to share them with at-risk women. While angina is the most common symptom associated with heart disease, women are actually more likely to experience pain in the neck, jaw, throat, abdomen or back; shortness of breath; and nausea/vomiting. Lightheadedness, dizziness or fainting are common signs, as well. These symptoms don’t always occur during exercise or periods of stress; they can happen during rest, too. By ensuring your at-risk patients are aware of these signs, it could mean they get treatment faster, which will ultimately lead to better outcomes.

Ob-gyns have a powerful opportunity to be the secret weapon in the fight against heart disease. We can help inform our patients about the dangers, symptoms, and necessary preventative care. Communicated early and effectively, we can help women manage the factors that are in their control to help them live healthier, longer lives.

OB-GYN’s Crucial Role in Protecting Women from Cervical Cancer

Every year, more than 12,000 American women are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and more than 4,000 of those women die from the disease. And, according to a reevaluation of existing data in a study recently published in the journal Cancer, the cervical cancer death rate may actually be much higher than previously estimated. Since January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, now is an excellent time to educate our patients about the steps they can take to not become a part of these terrible statistics.

We know Pap smears are one of the most effective tools we have to improve cervical cancer outcomes. Half of all cases of cervical cancer occur in women between the ages of 35 and 55; it’s rarely found in women under 20, and about 20 percent of cases are in women 65 and older. That’s why we recommend regular cervical cancer screenings in our patients starting at the age of 21 and through the age of 65 or longer based on individual risk factors. Pap smears screen for a cancer that’s often symptomless, and they help spot changes in the cervix before cancer develops—when treatments are most effective. Due to widespread adherence to Pap smear testing, deaths from cervical cancer have decreased by 50 percent over the last 30 years. So, encourage your patients to attend their annual well-woman visits. Along with the opportunity to offer Pap smears and screenings, these visits provide an ideal occasion to educate patients about cervical cancer risks and prevention.

Of course, virtually all cervical cancer cases are linked to HPV. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection: 80 percent of all sexually active people will contract the virus in their lifetimes. A family history of cervical cancer increases the risk two- to three-fold, since these women may have a genetically inherited condition that makes it harder for their bodies to fight off HPV infection. The three-dose HPV vaccine protects against 81 percent of cervical cancer cases. The CDC, AAP, AAFP and ACOG all recommend the vaccine for boys and girls between the ages of 11 to 12 years old. Full vaccination reduces risk of certain HPV-related cancer by up to 99 percent; boosting vaccination rates could prevent 29,000 HPV-related cases of cervical cancer every year.

Vaccine adherence rates, however, remain low, with only about one-third of girls and just over one in 10 boys receiving their full vaccination series. Educating your young patients or those who are parents of preteen children is important. Likewise, it’s important to ask your patients in their teens and 20s whether or not they’ve been vaccinated. Even if a patient missed the recommended vaccine as a child and is sexually active, if she’s under the age of 27, it may still be beneficial because there may not have been exposure to all of the virus strains the vaccine protects against. If a patient refuses vaccination at first, it never hurts to keep offering it at future visits.

Like many things we discuss with our patients, there is still a lot of misunderstanding about HPV and cervical cancer.  That’s why it’s so important to continue to encourage annual well woman visits and HPV vaccinations. For more information to help guide your conversations with patients, visit ACOG’s Immunization for Women website, shotbyshot.org, or the National Cervical Cancer Coalitions Cervical Cancer Awareness Month page.