When I started medical school in 2019, Connecticut was seeing an unprecedented outbreak of Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE), an often-fatal mosquito-borne illness. The milder winters and heavier rainfall fueled by climate change facilitate ideal conditions for mosquito proliferation, increasing the rates of not only EEE but other mosquito-borne illnesses like dengue and Zika virus.
Many days this summer and last I’ve woken up to see the sky hazy with smoke from wildfires across the heat-baked and drought-ridden continent, and worried about what it meant for those of us here in Connecticut — especially children, the elderly, and those with preexisting lung conditions — to be breathing in such toxic air.
More recently, I completed my clinical rotation in obstetrics and gynecology. I was lucky enough to assist with deliveries and witness the joy of patients and their partners as they welcomed the newest members of their family into the world.
During this otherwise beautiful experience, I was confronted with another reminder of the health consequences of an ever-warming planet. The air-conditioning system of the labor and delivery floor had recently broken down, and despite the quick implementation of some clunky A.C. units, a few delivery rooms were so sweltering they were rendered unusable. It was difficult not to wonder what would have happened if the entire hospital had lost A.C.
While the hospital floor could provide temporary temperature control in an emergency, not everyone has the resources to do the same in their own homes. What does it mean for the health of the newborns and their recovering parents who will endure blistering heat waves in unconditioned apartments?
What other health challenges will my future patients face in a world that is increasingly heated and polluted?
Climate change is the greatest threat to public health. The Lancet Countdown reported in 2019 that “the life of every child born today will be profoundly affected by climate change. Without accelerated intervention, this new era will come to define the health of people at every stage of their lives.”
For example, air pollution predictably exacerbates lung diseases such as asthma and COPD, but additionally has been shown to cause increased rates of infertility, preterm birth, and low birth weight in infants. Research continues to expose other unexpected health consequences of climate change every day, like links between increased temperature and declining sleep quality, worsening of Type 2 diabetes, chronic kidney disease and even violent crime.
These impacts will not be shared equally, with the large burden of the health harms of climate change falling on BIPOC and low-income communities.
However, despite this growing and irrefutable body of evidence linking climate change and health, few physicians or other members of the medical team have been adequately trained to address this issue. A 2014 survey of the National Medical Association (NMA), a professional association of Black physicians, showed that while 97% of respondents agree that climate change is happening and 88% believe it to be relevant to direct patient care, nearly three-quarters ‘Strongly Agreed’ or ‘Agreed’ that they lack the necessary knowledge on how to approach the issue with their patients. Hopefully this has improved in the past eight years, but there is certainly more work to be done so that our medical force can feel more comfortable and confident in their role in the climate crisis.
Those of us in groups such as Medical Students for a Sustainable Future are educating ourselves and our colleagues, pushing for curricular reform, advocating for policy change, and working alongside the medical professionals already spearheading the important work of connecting patient health to planetary health. I urge other students of all medical fields to join us.
Physicians can contact groups like the Medical Consortium on Climate and Health or Healthcare Without Harm to find out how they can take the first steps like researching how climate change will impact the health conditions they see every day, locating the nearest public cooling centers for those who might not have access to air conditioning, teaching their patients with allergies and asthma how to use apps that measure air quality, and evaluating if there are ways to ‘green’ the practices in the office or hospital they work in. Medical professionals can throw their support and expertise behind climate-forward policies, like CT’s Transportation Climate Initiative.
Patients can ask their doctor about the health harms of climate change and what they can do: small behavioral adjustments like eating more produce and less meat, or walking more and driving less, and minimizing single-use plastics are mutually beneficial for both patient and planetary health.
And most importantly, we can all urge our state legislators, members of Congress and President Biden to pass climate policies that will protect public health.
As medical professionals, we cannot guarantee our patient’s health inside the clinic without also fighting for a sustainable future outside it.
Joie Akerson is a medical student at Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine at Quinnipiac University.