Doctors know how to fight disease to keep their patients safe. From infectious disease to preventing strokes, they are constantly trying to stay ahead of the next big health risk. But what happens when the climate starts making patients sick? How can modern medicine even approach a problem as big as climate change and what it could mean for our patients? In this episode of Let’s Talk Climate, we discuss just that.
I speak as a young physician undergoing formal training in a Climate and Health Policy Fellowship. As such, I am uniquely positioned to comment on the role doctors can and should play in treating climate change.
Sarah McWilliam, a medical student in Dell Medical School’s Environmental Health Interest Group, joins the conversation to discuss how trainees are joining the fight. Having completed a Masters of Science in Law, she also comments on her innovative perspective as a climate-health professional with a legal and policy background.
Sarah kicks off the conversation by describing her path from law to medicine and on to climate-conscious medicine. She describes the rush she felt when legislation began changing as lawyers began to fight climate change. “Seeing that really inspired me and excited me, and [it] definitely told me that as a medical student and future physician I have a huge role in this.”
But what does that role look like for medical students? For her, a big part of it has been getting involved with interest groups to fuel advocacy. “Thankfully when I got to Dell, we have an Environmental Health Interest Group where other medical students believe . . . we need to be environmental activists as well.” She goes on to describe the myriad projects they undertake together, including their approaches in educating their community and engaging local lawmakers.
When it comes to practicing physicians, I had to reflect on the challenge of bringing the relevance of climate change into the clinical space. “For me, that’s like the Holy Grail. When you find a new problem. . . how are you going to draw attention to it and incorporate it in a meaningful way?” I imagine there are a bunch of ways we can skin this cat, but the one we talk about most is expanding upon an already existent practice of preventative care questions as part of primary care.
The conversation continues to touch upon topics from medical education to tackling social norms within healthcare. Sarah and I consider the challenges of making change, including big topics like COVID, time constraints, and the relative lack of guidance for concerned physicians.
“I think when we hear this overwhelming conversation, it’s easy to think that we don’t have a role to play,” Sarah says, though not without reminding the audience of the opportunity those within and outside of the medical profession have. “But a lot of the scientists are clear that we can solve this, we can reverse this.”
Dr. Eric Balaban is a hospitalist in Pittsburgh, PA and a National Climate & Health Science Policy Fellow at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, a partner of Climate for Health. He completed his residency training at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and also serves as a field surgeon with the Army National Guard.