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.

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.

We Cannot Afford to Have the Clock Turned Back on Women’s Health

As we begin a new year, a lot is at stake for Americans’ health. Our nation’s leaders have promised substantial changes to the Affordable Care Act, from partial to full repeal, without the certainty of a replacement plan. While it can be easy to get caught up in the politics of health care, as ob-gyns our focus has always been on our patients and ensuring that they have access to safe, high-quality health care. That is why a critical part of our work here at ACOG is to advocate for the health of women, and as millions of people face the possibility of losing health insurance coverage in the coming months or years, ACOG’s work has never been more important.

Earlier this month, ACOG partnered with three leading medical organizations—the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the American College of Physicians—to urge Congress to avoid repealing the ACA without an immediate replacement which would protect and retain the landmark women’s health provisions in the law.

The ACA is not perfect. In fact, ACOG didn’t endorse it originally because we felt it didn’t meet the needs of our physician members. However, while there’s lots to improve, the ACA does include really important protections for our patients’ health. Insurers must now cover maternity and preventive care and contraceptives. It stops insurers from charging women more than men for the same coverage, prevents insurers from denying coverage to women who were victims of domestic violence or who had a Cesarean delivery in the past. The ACA also guarantees women direct access to their ob-gyns without any limitations.

The coverage provided under the ACA allowed many women to schedule routine doctor’s appointments for the first time in their lives. We all know that when people have insurance, they’re more likely to use preventive care like mammogram and diabetes screenings that prevent more costly and life threatening health problems down the line.

Whatever one’s reservations may be about the law, as physicians we know how devastating it would be for a cancer patient to suddenly lose her coverage or for a pregnant woman to go without prenatal care and deliver a baby preterm because she could no longer afford health coverage. The fact is, low-income women are more likely to suffer from often preventable pregnancy complications and, unfortunately, that is the very population that stands to lose the most unless Congress protects these important benefits, including Medicaid expansion.

Today, 31 states and D.C. have expanded their Medicaid programs, offering coverage to 11 million newly eligible individuals. The most important part of the expansion to women is that those Medicaid programs cover low-income women even if they’re not pregnant. Regular Medicaid programs routinely only cover pregnant women through delivery and a few weeks after.

But speaking more broadly, all women stand to lose essential preventive care if the ACA is repealed. Access to breast cancer screenings decreases women’s likelihood of dying from the disease by up to 50 percent. Routine cervical screenings decrease the odds of late-stage cancer diagnosis by 60 percent. Finally, when women have access to more choices of affordable and effective contraception, including IUDs and implants, rates of unintended pregnancy, unplanned birth, and abortion drop dramatically.

In 2016 alone, 6.8 million girls and women gained health insurance coverage. If the law is repealed, those gains will likely be lost. We cannot turn back the clock on women’s health. The care we provide doesn’t stop in our exam or delivery rooms. It’s our responsibility to advocate on our patients’ behalf and protect their access to affordable, comprehensive health care. So let’s mobilize and use our collective community’s influence and expertise to ensure access to health care in this country.

To become involved in ACOG’s advocacy efforts, join us at the 35th Congressional Leadership Conference, The President’s Conference in Washington, D.C., in March.