The fourth anniversary of Superstorm Sandy on October 29 was a sobering reminder of the unique professional and personal challenges faced by health professionals who live and work in low-lying coastal areas. This kind of intense weather, which we are seeing more often under climate change, can cause extensive flooding like that after Hurricane Matthew less than a month ago. Extensive flooding leads to increased health risks, from drinking water shortages to water-borne diseases. In the case of North Carolina, it even led to more than 40 deaths. But it’s also provided models for positive action.
Hit, and Helped, at Home
As North Carolina Health News reported, hospitals in Robeson County, NC faced record high water levels that knocked out the electrical grid, causing power outages and submerging the water-treatment plant in the city of Lumberton. Joann Anderson, CEO of Southeastern Health, which operates the Southeastern Regional Medical Center there, worked around the clock with state and local leaders to keep the hospital running and ensure that patients continued to receive proper care. However, until normal services are restored, too-much rainwater and not-enough running water means staff there must be resourceful. As Anderson explained, hospitals need a great deal of water for everything from hand washing to sterilizing surgical equipment, so conservation is key.
Elsewhere in the Southeast, locals faced the risk of illnesses linked to bacteria in water that has spilled over from hog-waste lagoons on farms. Now, health professionals and patients alike may experience mental-health strains as the communities they love struggle to rebuild– especially children and elders, who are more sensitive to such stressors.
While not every hurricane can be linked directly to changes in the climate, Matthew is an example of the record storms and sea-level rise that have been linked to warmer air temperatures. Other health issues are associated with climate-related droughts in the West, which have reduced access to fresh water and the ability to grow nutritious food crops. And in cities all over the country, the “heat island effect” is cranking up heat waves. Health professionals working in urban neighborhoods are seeing more cases of heat stroke in those without access to air conditioning.
Treating and Talking
For many of us, watching these climate-health connections play out in the news or experiencing them ourselves has been a clarion call to take climate actions large and small. Granted, health care careers are already very demanding, so consider integrating this work into what you are already doing to help your patients and your field.
Here are a few opportunities:
- If you are doctor or nurse treating people for a condition related to a storm or flood, this may be a perfect pivot to talk to your patients about climate change: building awareness of its effects on a personal and local level, and how people can protect both their own health and our climate through positive behavior changes. Today that could mean reminding them to boil tap water for safety. Longer term, it could mean suggesting they ride a bike to work or school to increase fitness while cutting back on carbon pollution from driving a car.
- If you are a hospital administrator, take a look at ways to green up your everyday operations through money-saving practices – such as energy efficiency and waste reduction. Review and check the systems you have in place for carrying on during storms, such as back-up generators and extra water supplies. Consider creative resilience solutions, such as the 24/7 combined heat and power system Greenwich Hospital installed back in 2008. Four years later, during Hurricane Sandy, the system allowed the Connecticut hospital to continue normal operations—and even lets it go off the electrical grid during high-demand periods such as heat waves.
- Share stories and ideas with your peers in the health care professions on how to respond to issues related to large storms, and help them to make the connections between climate, weather, and health solutions in their work and with the people they serve.
- If you’re in public health, you can spend a few hours working with boards or committees involved with climate change preparation. For example, since Hurricane Katrina touched New Orleans, the city has revised its master plan for coastal restoration and hurricane protection to account for ongoing sea level rise. Expert help is needed.
- Knowledgeable professionals can also speak out at public hearings and write letters to the editor or op-eds sharing medical knowledge that links extreme weather with health effects. You can also provide tips for taking actions that help protect both health and climate.
These conversations aren’t always easy, but several ecoAmerica research reports offer proven advice for such discussions. These guides include Climate for Health’s Let’s Talk Health & Climate: Communication Guidance for Health Professionals, and Beyond Storms and Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change (written in collaboration with the American Psychological Association). Webinars on these topics are also available. You can learn more about the former here and watch the latter here.
Health professionals can be the proverbial calm before (and after) the storm by using these serious events as openings to communicate about and implement positive climate solutions.
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