Taking the Long View
Climbing to the top of a fire tower as a young girl, the rugged beauty of the southern Missouri’s Ozark Mountain’s spreading below her, Beth Schenk recalls the moment her passion for environmental issues began. “We were watching the sun set; there was something so beautiful, I started crying.”
As a girl growing up in Missouri and Montana, Schenk was increasingly drawn to the natural world. She went on to earn her undergraduate degree in botany, and eventually, nursing. “At the time, I didn’t realize this passion I had was actually for health,” Schenk says. “I simply knew I wanted to pursue a career where I could preserve both the health of humans and the environment.”
Schenk’s quiet vision is key to her success building climate change awareness at St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, Montana. St. Patrick Hospital is part of the larger Providence Health & Services system that spans 5 states, 35 hospitals and 350 clinics, and employs close to 71,000 people. With 28 years of nursing experience and a doctorate in nursing focusing on environmental impacts of nursing practice. Schenk’s credentials and insights have both legitimized the role of climate in healthcare discussions and shaped the conversation for a new generation of health leadership.
Permission Must Be Shared, Before It Can Be Lived
Recognizing the direct link between the climate and health early on, Schenk first saw opportunity in hospital waste management. By 1993, she organized the hospital’s first recycling effort. It was hard but rewarding work, but her early experiences in reducing waste eventually formed a bigger mandate. Schenk says, “The hospital leaders didn’t have to personally do much to support my efforts then, but they gave permission, so within the organization it set an expectation. So while our initiatives are driven largely by passionate grassroots people, I really think you have to have top-down engagement as well, to allow to allow a much deeper penetration of change throughout an organization.”
With that in mind, she launched “Turning the Tide, Restoring Human Health by Reclaiming the Planet” a series of annual human health and environment education conferences as an expansion of the work she was spearheading to reduce toxic chemicals, save energy and reduce waste. Committed to providing a balanced platform from which participants could explore their own questions and concerns and develop meaningful relationships to the issues, Schenk eased into the discussion of climate change. “Our main focus was to provide a forum for discussion and learning, based on science about the important intersection of climate change and health", says Schenk.
Shaping Conversations for Effective Change
Schenk is excited for the possibilities as support continues to grow. Signaling growing awareness of the need for climate change solutions, last year’s Turning the Tide conference began with a thorough explanation of climate change science and global and local health consequences. “We focused as much as possible on the positives and all the co-benefits of behaving differently. We talked about commuting by bike or walking through the beautiful streets of Missoula, and how that saves money and helps reduce stress before and after work, while also cutting down on climate impacts.”
The event brought together physicians, nurses, and infectious disease experts with local citizens and local city officials. Having conference speakers including Dr. Jonathan Patz, Director of the Global Health Institute and lead author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change led to unprecedented media coverage in numerous television, radio, newspaper, community and hospital newsletters. Social media outlets engaged a larger audience.
As St. Patrick’s awareness-raising programs expand, Schenk is focused on keeping the climate conversation relevant to health and to nursing. With more than 3.1 million registered nurses nationwide, the impact of nurses is potentially powerful. Schenk says, “As nurses, we have a long history of patient advocacy and education. We are holistic thinkers who consider the many factors that influence health, including the health of the environment. Nurses who help us address environmental health and safety issues are beginning the movement to create environmentally sustainable health care.”
Recently, Washington State University College of Nursing appointed Schenk as Nurse Scientist in a shared appointment with St. Patrick’s Hospital. As a pioneer in the field of climate and health, Schenk is working to integrate environmentally sustainable health care content into existing WSU nursing courses.
Keys To Success
- Work from both the top and bottom of an organization: Leadership support with grassroots passion will help sustain efforts for climate change solutions to be addressed within your organization.
- Communicate effectively - for healthcare people, it helps to focus more on the effects of climate change that are relevant to health, and the practical ways to protect and enhance health through climate preparedness and solutions.
- Provide a balanced platform - allow participants to explore their own questions and concerns in order to develop a values-based relationship with the issue.
- Develop/publish other educational resources, or use those available from agencies, organizations or people in similar practices.
- Host an event with cross-sector leaders on the panel and explore solutions with your events' attendees - take their input into consideration, and brainstorm together.
- Find opportunities to address the climate issues when planning or building programs so that climate impacts and preparedness are considered.
- For clinicians, keep the climate conversation alive in order to reflect on one's own behaviors both in practice settings and in personal time.