The Unique Opportunity that Clinicians Have to Frame Climate as a Health Imperative

By path2positive

In the most recent Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Howard Koh from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health hits the proverbial nail on the head. "Clinicians have a powerful and unique opportunity to engage the nation by framing the crisis as a health imperative. Doing so can educate and empower patients, policy makers, and the public," writes Dr. Koh.

A 2014 national poll by Yale and George Mason Universities of 1275 adults noted that, when asked when asked about information regarding the health consequences of global warming, people in the United States were most likely to trust their primary care doctor, followed by family and friends and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As Dr. Koh outlines, through their collective and professional voice, clinicians can support a range of climate solution actions, such as:

  • reduce greenhouse emissions
  • direct messages at specific groups, making issues personal that might otherwise seem abstract
  • educate patients with conditions such as asthma to encourage vigilance during heat waves and periods of poor air quality
  • offer specific medical guidance about adverse health outcomes

Unsure where to begin? Climate for Health can help you get started.

Communicating the Health Effects of Climate Change

The Journal of the American Medical Association, Volume 315, No. 3

By Howard Koh, MD, MPH I January 19, 2016

As 2015 draws to a close, on track to be the hottest year ever recorded, global attention to climate change soared. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), composed of more than 2000 of the world’s leading climate change scientists, has stated with confidence that the major driver of rising temperatures is human-generated greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide) largely related to the burning of fossil fuels.

These heat-trapping emissions have resulted in more frequent and prolonged heat waves, poorer air quality, rising seas, and severe storms, floods, and wildfires. Some extreme weather events, previously expected once in decades, are now being witnessed several times in one decade. These consequences fundamentally affect the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, and the environments in which we live, as a number of sources have pointed out (such as publications in The Lancet and JAMA, and Climate Change and Public Health (a collection articles on the subject), and a report from the US National Climate Assessment (NCA).

The IPCC’s most recent report, as well as the third US NCA (both from 2014), detail how global warming threatens human health by amplifying existing health threats and creating new ones. Everyone is vulnerable. Some experts contend that these profound harms rival the fundamental public health challenges posed by the lack of sanitation and clean water in the early 20th century.

The many adverse health outcomes include heat- and extreme weather–related conditions, infections, respiratory conditions and allergies, and mental health conditions. Heat waves promote dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke while exacerbating heart, lung, and kidney disease. Patients using widely prescribed classes of medications that impair thermoregulation (such as stimulants, antihistamines, and antipsychotic agents) may be particularly at risk. Heavy rains heighten the risk of waterborne infections.

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