Female physicians are leading the way in environmental stewardship

By Yasmine S. Ali, MD, MSCI, FACC, FACP | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published February 22, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Female physicians are leading efforts to bring greater awareness to the connection between environmental health and human health.

  • By sounding alarms about health threats related to our environment, women in medicine are highlighting how climate change exacerbates diseases and disrupts healthcare systems.

  • By leveraging your respected position as a female physician, you can educate communities and policymakers on the harmful impacts of climate change and act as an environmental steward for our endangered planet.

There is a new movement of physicians addressing public health through an environmental lens, and female physicians are leading the way.

From activities like prescribing time spent in parks and natural areas, to analyzing the impacts of climate change on disease incidence, women in medicine are taking the opportunity to raise awareness of the crucial connection between environmental health and global public health.

Climate change’s health impacts

A number of female physicians are working in the arena of health and climate change. One of those at the forefront is Renee N. Salas, MD, MPH, MS, an emergency medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Dr. Salas was elected to the National Academy of Medicine in 2021 for her work on climate change and health.

In a 2022 interview with the Harvard Undergraduate Health Policy Review, Dr. Salas called climate change a “secondary diagnosis,” citing multiple ways that it “can make it harder for us to prevent or manage [a] disease,” citing asthma as an example.[]

“Climate change is a meta-problem and threat multiplier,” Dr. Salas said, noting other pathways such as climate-intensified extreme weather and weather events (ie, extreme heat, hurricanes, and floods) and climate-sensitive diseases transmitted by mosquitoes and ticks.

Dr. Salas pointed out other detrimental effects of climate change, such as those on healthcare systems brought about through power outages, infrastructural damage, and disruptions in the supply chain.

Sounding the alarm on extreme heat

Elaine Bunick, MD, a retired endocrinologist who has traveled on medical mission trips to Ghana, Haiti, and other countries, has also been sounding the alarm about extreme heat.

Although climate-related events like severe hurricanes, floods, and wildfires often dominate public attention, it is actually extreme heat that claims more lives than any other cause of weather-related death in the United States.[]

As reported by The Oak Ridger, Dr. Bunick gave a talk to Altrusa International of Oak Ridge, TN, on the effects of climate change on human health, including the dangers of excessive heat. She pointed out that those with chronic medical conditions, such as cardiovascular, pulmonary, and renal diseases, are at greater risk of heat-related illness and complications.[]

Park prescriptions

Deborah Cohen, MD, MPH, has partnered with the founder of Park Rx America, Robert Zarr, MD, MPH, as co-principal investigator for the Park Rx study, one of the largest prospective, randomized controlled trial to date evaluating the effect of park prescriptions as an intervention during routine pediatric clinic visits vs usual care.[]

Related: Take a hike! ‘Social prescriptions’ offer a medication alternative

The Park Rx study is a 5-year RCT that aims to recruit 500 children aged 6 to 16 and  randomize them to either a park prescription or usual care during routine clinical visits.

The park prescription includes a location (ie, a public park), an activity to undertake there, a frequency, and a duration. With the promotion of both physical activity and exposure to nature, Dr. Cohen and her colleagues hope to demonstrate that “children receiving a park prescription will have greater physical activity levels and improved physical and mental health outcomes.”

What this means for you

In this rising movement addressing the increasing impacts of environmental dangers on human populations worldwide, women in medicine can act as trusted authorities and community leaders in educating the public and policymakers on health issues, while advocating for evidence-based reforms and modeling sustainable behaviors in their personal and professional lives. Consider joining forces with groups that are researching planetary health impacts; introduce sustainability concepts to students and patients where relevant; utilize park prescriptions and encourage patients to spend time in nature. The role of environmental steward has never been more relevant—or urgent.

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