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Inspiring the Next Generation of Physicians to Prioritize Climate Change as a Health Issue

By Jane Chang
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Climate change is an issue that is increasingly impacting the health of our population, as we see the far-reaching and sometimes drastic effects take hold. Longer allergy seasons, wider-spread and more severe vector-borne disease prevalence, and more frequent and erratic extreme weather events are a few examples of how environmental factors related to climate change are affecting physical and mental health outcomes. As debates rage on in our political landscape over climate change, physicians, meanwhile, report that climate change is a real issue their patients face today and they need information on how to confront this issue for the health and wellbeing of their patients. 

The next generation of physicians feels this pressure acutely, as they worry not only for their future patients, but also for themselves, their families, and their communities, as the projected future is often grim if we do not take serious action to address climate change. As one of America’s most trusted professionals, they have an opportunity – and some of them may see it as a responsibility – to take on this urgent issue and help elevate it to the public eye. 

The American Medical Student Association (AMSA) is a student-governed, national organization committed to representing the concerns of physicians-in-training. Their members are a vital force of future physicians who believe that patients and health professionals are partners in the management of health care, and that student idealism can be transformed into meaningful public service, innovation, and institutional change. Recognizing the essential role that the young generation of health care providers has in grabbing hold of the momentum we are building amongst today’s leaders, Climate for Health (CfH)  is excited to partner with AMSA in visible national leadership, building climate-literate professionals, engaging all stakeholders in this important issue, and building collective support and action for climate solutions. 

Dr. DeNicola presenting. Image credit: Jane Chang
AMSA invited us to speak at their annual meeting on February 25, 2017 in Crystal City, VA. Knowing what we do about the efficacy of peer-to-peer education amongst medical professionals, we invited Nathaniel DeNicola, MD, MSHP, FACOG to speak with us to this audience of mostly medical students. Dr. DeNicola is an Assistant Professor of Obstetrics & Gynecology at The George Washington University and serves as the Liaison for the American Congress of Obstetricians & Gynecologists (ACOG) to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) Executive Council on Environmental Health. He explains, “The more closely we look at childhood diseases caused by environmental toxics, the more we realize many of these really begin during pregnancy or during preconception care. Having the ob/gyn’s work hand-in-hand with the pediatricians on these exposures has been a tremendously valuable relationship.” Dr. DeNicola is a leader amongst physicians on the issue of climate change and health, and we were thrilled that he accepted our invitation. 

We presented to a group of passionate, curious, and engaged students about:

  • Health impacts of climate change, focusing in on global issues like infectious disease and air pollution
  • CfH program goals, strategies, communications frameworks, and available resources
  • Opportunities for engagement for physicians and medical students
  • Ways to influence change as a physician through clinical practice, behavior, and infrastructure
  • Ways to engage patients and peers in solutions and mitigation strategies

Participants were curious to know how best to incorporate climate change solution education and advocacy into their work and training as practicing physicians. “From air pollution to heat stress to toxic chemical exposures, nearly every physician has something they can talk about with their patients. The key first step is simply asking the questions, then the value of the environmental health history flows very naturally," says Dr. DeNicola. “In terms of advocacy – it is clear that policymakers need trusted sources of factual health information, and physicians should consider this part of their role in contributing to a well-informed citizenry.”

The next generation of physicians is an extremely important target audience as we look to the future for leadership on emerging health impacts of climate change and worsening health outcomes for patients (especially vulnerable populations). We look forward to working with AMSA and other important partners, including ACOG and AAP, as we build leadership in the health sector.