Doctors Push For Health Care To Address Climate Change In New Teaching Framework

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Doctors join Extinction Rebellion activists continue to demonstrate for the sixth day running in Trafalgar Square on Oct. 12, 2019 in London, England. (Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
Doctors join Extinction Rebellion activists continue to demonstrate for the sixth day running in Trafalgar Square on Oct. 12, 2019 in London, England. (Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

Climate change isn't just transforming our environment and weather — it's impacting our health.

That’s why a group of doctors created a new education framework to teach medical residents how to address climate change with their patients.

Up until recently, future doctors lacked guidelines for working with climate change-related challenges, says lead author Dr. Rebecca Philipsborn of Emory University School of Medicine. The American Medical Association and other organizations have now called for health care professionals to heed the call to action, she says.

Experts in health, climate and medical resident education collaborated to design tangible guidelines that fit into what medical residents are already learning in school.

The framework is broken down into three parts: “What are the harms to health from climate change? How does climate change require adaptations in our clinical practice? And how does climate change disrupt health care delivery?” Philipsborn says.

Climate change is impacting nearly every organ in our bodies, she says, and hurts how professionals deliver quality health care to patients.

Wildfires and air pollution can worsen illnesses or severity of chronic conditions such as respiratory problems and asthma, she notes. And doctors have been noticing new conditions from climate change, she says, such as how extremely hot weather can cause heat-related nephropathy in the kidneys.

Across the board, doctors are observing more and more climate-related risks and challenges, she says. The severity of these illnesses can depend on where a doctor practices.

For example, Philipsborn says, “during Hurricane Irma, when there were almost 7 million people under evacuation orders from Florida, we cared for mothers and their newborn babies who were displaced from their homes [and] their support system in this very vulnerable stage of that baby's life.”

When she’s working with medical students, she reminds them that “patients spend more than 99% of their time outside of the exam room. … We can't just deliver treatment in this safe clinical space and ignore the risk that patients face in the rest of their lives.”

The new framework helps future health care professionals recognize the risks of climate change not only to treat and manage patients but also to prepare patients with the information they need to avoid risks when possible.

To address climate change within the health care industry, medical facilities need to recognize how human health and the environment are “intertwined and related.”


And if medical professionals’ goal, under the Hippocratic oath of physicians ethics, is to do no harm — then addressing climate change needs to take priority, she says.

“Our health care facilities are part of the problem in terms of the carbon emissions that we create that actually does harm to the patients that we hope to serve,” she says. “The health care industry is faced with this transition to producing less carbon, less greenhouse gas emissions in the care we provide, and I think physicians have an important voice in that discussion as well.”

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration of more than 400 news outlets committed to better coverage of the climate crisis. This Sept. 21-28 collaborative week focuses on the intersection of climate change and politics.

Want to help improve WBUR's climate coverage? Take this short survey to let us know what you like and what you want more of from our reporting.

Cristina Kim produced this story and edited it for broadcast with Tinku RaySerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on September 21, 2020.


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