The climate crisis isn’t just affecting the weather. While the more glaring signs of climate change include extreme weather and natural disasters, climate change is also exacerbating many health issues, something that doctors need to recognize and learn to treat.
A student-led movement
“As we were going through our lectures, in our first year, we noticed that there was really no mention of some of the health risks of climate change,” said now fourth-year medical student at Emory, Ben Rabin.
Together with his classmate Emaline Laney, Rabin raised this concern to the school and worked to see how climate change could be weaved into the first-and-second-year medical school curriculum.
“For example, we learn a lot about kidney injury, and kidney failure,” Robin said. “So, we wanted to talk about what are some of the risks of extreme heat?” He continued to explain that it’s much easier to get dehydrated when it’s very hot, and this could result in kidney failure.
The pair found lots of topics that tie together climate change and health. For example, extreme heat is also linked to preterm birth and low birth weight, air pollution affects strokes and asthma, and, of course, there are the mental health impacts of worsening hurricanes and wildfires.
Rabin and Laney worked with the faculty to develop a curriculum that contextualizes what students would already learn by fleshing out the lessons with the added risks and impacts of climate change.
A growing shift
The adjustments that Emory Medical School is making to their curriculum reflects a wider shift that medical schools across the country are also beginning to take. In 2017, Columbia University launched the Global Consortium on Climate and Health Education. The consortium develops best practices and educational training for climate change education, and its conceptualization was a result of the COP21 conference in Paris in 2015.
The American Medical Association also began endorsing the teaching of climate change and health in “undergraduate, graduate, and continuing medical education,” in 2019.
Now more than ever, the need for doctors of tomorrow to be educated about the health risks of climate change is increasingly clear. According to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the prevalence of climate-related illnesses, premature deaths, malnutrition, and mental health impacts is rising. They predict that by 2050, there will be more than 250,000 of these incidents annually, “just due to heat, undernutrition, malaria, and diarrheal disease.”
Before this student-led effort, “progress has… felt a little slow and ad hoc,” said Becca Philipsborn, the faculty advisor for Emory’s new climate effort. “Now, there is momentum that seems to reflect a shared recognition that climate change matters for the health of our patients, for clinical care delivery, now.”
Dr. Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association, isn’t surprised that students are driving change. In the past, they’ve pushed schools to progress in terms of how they address racism and also incorporate telemedicine. Medical students from schools all over the country, like Stanford, Tulane, and the University of California, San Francisco are also pushing for climate change to be introduced into their curriculum.
Why is it important to integrate climate change and health education?
Benjamin stresses the importance of teaching climate change within medicine early in a doctor’s career. “You can get physicians to be a little more holistic in their approach, and recognize these social determinants make a difference.”
For Benjamin and others who are part of this movement, it’s more than just improving how doctors treat patients. “Physicians are influential in their community. And so making sure they understand that [to] connect the dots for human health is important,” he said.
Hopefully, raising awareness among patients about how the different parts of the climate crisis, like pollution, warming, and wildfires, affect their health and that of their children will motivate people to do even more to protect the planet.
As second-year Emory med student Irene Liu put it, integrating climate change into medical education made her “realize that there’s nothing within our health system that climate change doesn’t touch.”