Advocating for a fertility-friendly future

Photograph of Dr. Caitlin Dunne
By Crystal Mackay, MA’05

On any given day, Dr. Caitlin Dunne, MD’08, might see one of the one in six couples struggling with infertility, a single woman exploring her options for egg freezing, or a trans individual looking to preserve fertility before transition.

This diversity of patients have one thing in common the yearning to have a baby. Dr. Dunne, the co-director of the Pacific Centre for Reproductive Medicine, one of the largest fertility clinics in Canada, says helping her patients to achieve that dream through a relatively new and ever-changing field of medicine is the most rewarding part of her job.

“The reason I love reproductive endocrinology is it is such a rapidly evolving field and we are constantly finding ways to do things better, and to help our patients in different ways,” she said. “Because awareness of the range of fertility concerns is evolving, technologies and treatments are evolving as well. And that’s really exciting.”     

At her clinic, Dr. Dunne and her team offer patients a range of cutting-edge approaches to fertility, including testing embryos before implantation through pre-implantation genetic testing (PGTA). This allows the team to be sure the embryo has the right number of chromosomes and to test for inherited diseases like Huntington’s.

Named this year as one of Canada’s Top 40 Under 40, Dr. Dunne was recognized for her passion for her work and her advocacy for women’s health. She was inspired to pursue this field of medicine because of a spark that started when she attended medical school at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry.

“I found my passion very early in medical school when I realized I wanted to work with and advocate for women,” she said. “So, whenever I have the chance to, I talk about the importance of fertility and the importance of women’s health in our society.”

Part of that involves talking openly about infertility and miscarriage and advocating for workplaces and employers to become more fertility friendly. Through speaking engagements with some of the largest companies in British Columbia and op-ed and freelance writing, she talks about the ways that employers can support women trying to have a baby through these phases of their life.

“If you talk to any woman who has been through a miscarriage, she will tell you that it was really hard not only emotionally and physically to go through that, but also to balance time off work, trying to keep a secret and the stress around trying to fit the medical care that was required into their schedule,” she said.

Dr. Dunne encourages employers to set up a work environment where women feel comfortable talking about their fertility and taking time for treatment if they need it. She has also advocated for large companies to fund fertility treatments for women through their health benefits.  

Another one of her passions is her involvement as the Vice President on the board of a charitable organization called Fertile Future, which raises money to provide fertility preservation for patients going through cancer treatment. She says for patients undergoing chemotherapy, or for cancers that involve the reproductive organs, surviving cancer shouldn’t mean giving up the dream of having a family.

Fertile Future provides funding to freeze eggs, embryos or sperm before cancer treatment and works with fertility clinics to contribute their services in-kind so the treatments can be provided to these patients at a lower cost.

She’s proud of the work that she and her team do for families, but wants to see the field continue to evolve to be able to help more patients.

“Any doctor would like the ability to heal 100 per cent of her patients, but unfortunately Mother Nature just doesn’t work that way, so the most challenging aspect of my job is that we can’t have success 100 per cent of the time,” she said. “I’m happy when my patients are happy. So the most rewarding part is when the whole team is working seamlessly – from the administrative team, to the nurses, to the lab technicians who grow the embryos, and we have a happy patient and a happy baby at the end of the day.”