issue Community Health 2024

Connecting the Dots: Wish Symposium Links Changing Climate to Women’s Health Outcomes

By Dan Moran
Dr. Sorensen providing medical aid on a trip to Ghana in West Africa. (Image provided by Dr. Sorensen)

Cecilia Sorensen, MD, opened the 8th Annual Women in Science and Healthcare (WiSH) Symposium with a disclaimer: “I’m an ER doctor. I’m not a climate scientist.”

She then illustrated in intricate detail why physicians are qualified to comment on climate change — they are on the front lines of the global crisis as they respond to climate-driven impacts, including higher average temperatures expanding the range of malaria and dengue; warmer winters allowing ticks and the Lyme disease they carry to spread into the Midwest; and deadly heat waves striking places like the Pacific Northwest.

“This is not something that’s going to be happening in the future. We are dealing with this on an everyday basis,” Dr. Sorensen told the Sept. 14 Centennial Room gathering. “I see that as an emergency-medicine doctor — just last week, I took care of a 92-year-old man who had heatstroke and almost died.”

“We never say there’s no treatment options. We always have some type of way forward.”

But, she added, physicians are equipped to drive solutions to the crisis, pointing out that “we deal with bad prognoses often. We never say there’s no treatment options. We always have some type of way forward.”

The symposium’s theme for 2023 was “Mother/Earth Under the Microscope: Climate Change and Women’s Health.” Dr. Sorensen discussed myriad effects on women across the globe from a full range of natural disasters, such as hurricanes displacing women and exposing them to sexual violence and extreme heat being linked to increased birth defects, preterm births, low birth weights and stillbirths.

In her opening remarks, President and CEO Wendy Rheault, PT, PhD, FASAHP, FNAP, DipACLM, told the audience that climate change poses “a serious threat to human health, especially among low-income communities, pregnant women and children. Knowing that compels us to work for change and drive sustainable innovation across every area of our university.”

Among the solutions discussed by the symposium panel — which included moderator Regina de Leon Gomez, MD; Neha Basti, CMS ’25; Todd Beer, PhD, associate professor of sociology at Lake Forest College; and Jim Burgess, a director of sustainability at Medline — were decarbonizing hospitals and health systems by 2050, since the global healthcare sector produces 4.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The discussion also focused on involving more women in climate-change policy and in vector-control methods in particular, and deploying OB/GYNs in initial response to natural disasters, especially hurricanes. A key general recommendation was promoting more climate-change education for healthcare professionals, students and patients.

Ms. Basti, a founding co-director of CMS’ Planetary Health Report Card chapter, encouraged both younger students and their mentors to take action.

“We don’t have time for those 12-year-olds to finish college and get all their degrees,” she said. “We need their voices now. So if there’s anything you can do in the spaces where you have influence today to empower young people, I encourage you to do that.”

Sharing the observation that “we are the first generation to feel the impacts of climate change and we’re also the last generation that can do anything about it,” Dr. Sorensen stressed that today’s challenges are presenting opportunities for change.

“I love this quote: ‘We didn’t leave the Stone Age because we ran out of stones. We left because we found a better way,’” she said. “And so we don’t need to wait — there are better ways.”

Dan Moran is the communications director in ͬԼ’s Division of Marketing and Brand Management.