When thinking about climate change, daunting images of flooding, massive storms and drought fill one’s mind. However, of increasing concern to the medical community is the specific impact that the effects of climate change will have on individual health. These effects are no longer solely for future concern, with a majority of physicians reporting having already seen them exemplified in current patients today. As such, the demands by physicians for greater research on the health impact of climate change and the skills needed for treatment and management grows.
Climate change is a significant threat to human health both directly and indirectly. Vulnerable populations such as the elderly, children or those impacted by long-term chronic face the greatest risk (U.S Climate and Health Alliance, 2016). Some of these health effects are summarized below (U.S Global Change Research Program):
- Rising temperatures will lead to increases in heat stroke and heat-related deaths
- Worsened air quality from ozone and particulate matter will increase cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses and deaths
- Shifts in the seasonal weather patterns will expand the range and seasonal activity of ticks which will worsen human exposure to Lyme disease
- Warmer water temperatures will allow for bacteria growth that is dangerous to human health
- There will be an increase in food pathogens and salmonella exposure with warmer temperatures and greater humidity.
Of a survey by George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, of 2300 physicians across the U.S in the National Medical Association, 97% believed that climate change is indeed happening and 79% have seen climate change affecting their individual patients. These physicians reported that the most common symptoms of climate change seen in their patients were that of weather-related injuries, increases in chronic disease due to air pollution and increase in allergy symptoms (Public Health Institute, 2016). Climate change’s damage is becoming recognized and pressing.
While this health problem is well acknowledged, physicians report lacking the time, skillset and resources to properly tackle the resulting concerns. Some medical schools offer coursework discussing climate change and health, but typically these classes are not required and are often overlooked by busy medical students. A few medical schools, like the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, have begun to elevate training on the matter by requiring students to take a week-long course on the matter for example (Friedrich, 2017, p.1512). Health educators have additionally advocated for an improved curriculum on eco-medical literacy for physicians which emphasizes relationships between geography, people, culture, history and medicine in problem solving (Bell, 2010). Calls for widespread training on these matters are increasing. One step in the direction however has been the founding of the Global Consortium on Climate and Health, and similar organizations, that unite medical schools, nursing schools and public health organizations in sharing best practices for training physicians and medical students on diagnosing and caring for these health effects (Friedrich, 2017, p. 1512).
As a recent article published by the American Medical Association written by M. J Friedrich emphasizes, the health community can also help limit the effects of this environmental crisis by making its practices and institutions greener. The enormous health sector currently contributes 8% of total greenhouse gases in the U.S largely through hospital services (2017). Efforts such as reducing emissions, waste reduction, water conservation, promoting efficient energy us, using safer cleaning chemicals and selling consciously grown foods are steps in the right direction for the health sector to limit its environmental impact while also reducing its own personal costs (Eckelman and Sherman, 2016). A sector whose job it is to promote population health must choose to make its internal actions consistent with its greater mission.
Friedrich identifies that one of the most powerful role for physicians in the context of climate change may be in their capacity as trusted and wise sources of authority for the population at large (p.1513). Through physicians, patients can learn to take seriously the warnings about climate change and also property guard against the effects that such extreme change may have on their wellbeing. As the climate change conversation shifts from talking about prevention to preparing for how management of its effects, physicians can prove to be helpful agents both through medicine and education. Climate change is not going anywhere, and the medical community must be ready for its inevitable impact.
Bell, E. (2010). Climate Change: What Competencies and Which Medical Education and Training Approaches. BMC Medical Education, 10(31). Retrieved April 22, 2018.
Eckelman, M. J., & Sherman, J. (2016). Environmental Impacts of the U.S. Health Care System and Effects on Public Health. PLoS ONE, 11(6), e0157014. http://doi.org/10.1371/
Friedrich, M. (2017). Medical Community Gathers Steam to Tackle Climate’s Health Effects. JAMA,317(15), 1511-1513. Retrieved April 22, 2018.
Public Health Institute/Center for Climate Change and Health. (2016). Physician Surveys on Climate Change and Health. Retrieved April 22, 2018, from http://climatehealthconnect.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/PhysicianSurveys.pdf
U.S. Global Change Research Program. (n.d.). The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment. Retrieved April 22, 2018, from https://health2016.globalchange.gov/