Transformative Education
for Health Professionals

Envisioning a greener, healthier future: climate change education for health professionals

A medical student from the Philippines signs a petition clamoring for bolder commitments and action among world leaders attending the 2009 UN climate negotiations in Copenhagen, Denmark

On August 27-29, 2014, the World Health Organization organizes the first ever Conference on Health and Climate which aims to launch a dialogue within the global health community about strengthening health system resilience to climate risks and promoting health while mitigating climate change. Kelly Lau, who is currently doing her internship in the WHO supporting the preparations for the conference, talks about the role of health professionals in addressing climate change and the need to incorporate climate change in their education.

The world is beginning to recognize that climate change directly threatens our health.  This week in Geneva, the WHO Conference on Health and Climate will gather over 300 government ministers, experts and ambassadors from around the world in order to discuss the dangers climate change poses to our health and the global action needed to prevent these consequences. For those who are not aware of the link between climate and our health, this event beckons the question: why should health professionals be taught about climate change?

The reality is that climate change is affecting our health right now. There is overwhelming evidence that global warming could be the single greatest threat to our health in the 21st century, according to a 2009 Lancet-University College London commission. We do not have to wait for the next epidemic, the next natural disaster, the next threat to our health. Climate change is already directly and indirectly harming the very basic foundations of human society and well-being. A 2012 WHO report estimated that respiratory disorders from air pollution kill more than 7 million people each year. Along with air pollutants, heat waves contribute not only to respiratory problems but also a large burden of cardiovascular disease. Floods, droughts, and other extreme weather events brought about by climate change have already put even greater strain on our food and water systems. Social tensions and conflict have already begun in areas where access to clean water has become precarious.

As with many other global problems, it is disproportionately the most vulnerable in poverty stricken areas including children, women and the elderly who are already, and further will be, affected by climate change. For instance, in 2000 more than 80% of the global burden of disease attributed to climate change impacted children. If there is anything the recent Ebola outbreak has shown us, it is that diseases of poorer regions can no longer be easily contained in our increasingly globalized world. The expected increase in infectious diseases such as malaria and dengue due to the increased vector spread resulting from warmer temperatures will be a threat that rich countries cannot ignore. Climate change will only amplify the inequity in an already unequal world.

Young health professionals and the broader health sector have an important role to play in the fight against climate change. As it is the younger generations who will be primarily seeing the effects of climate change, it is even more vital that we are educating young health professionals about the link between climate change and health. In fact, helping to combat climate change is synonymous with promoting health. Just as we are preparing for the next pandemic or developing new medicines for emerging diseases, we should also be making more sustainable decisions about our health care system. An important message that should be emphasized in medical curricula is that actions we take towards improving our environment also benefit our health.

For instance, reducing the amount of energy and waste used and produced by hospitals can help reduce the amount of air pollutants that directly affect the burden of respiratory disease. Using public transportation and bicycles instead of private transport can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as reduce respiratory and cardiovascular disease. In general minimizing our CO2 output can help to mitigate the increasing temperature from global warming that support malaria and dengue mosquitos.

While we healthcare students learn about the etiologies of disease and biological pathways that cause them, we should also look at the mechanisms that shape our environment. If we are already seeing the effects of pollution, extreme weather events, nutritional deficiencies and emerging infectious diseases, we should learn more about how to foresee and deal with these problems before they are amplified. That means learning about how climate affect our food and water systems, the immediate threats to our shelter, as well as the impacts on those most vulnerable.

Students have already begun involving in this new movement. For example, health professional student organizations such as the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations (IFMSA) have been actively promoting the link between climate change and health. For years, IFMSA has been an active participant in UN climate change negotiations, and is one of the founding organizations of the Global Climate and Health Alliance. Two years ago, IFMSA collaborated with WHO in developing a campaign video promoting awareness about the health impacts of climate change. In addition, a month ago IFMSA ran a social media campaign and a workshop in Taiwan on the subject. Most recently last August 13-16, some of IFMSA’s national member organizations also organized a mock World Health Assembly in Copenhagen focusing on climate change and health. 

As future health care workers, we are responsible for caring for the health of our communities.  It is easy to be trapped into short-term thinking where the immediacy of trying to care for someone critically ill is the priority. The point we have to make is that these effects are not a far away future, but we are seeing them right now. The evidence on link between climate change and health is already well established. We have an important role to play as health advocates and global citizens. We have a responsibility to learn about these trends as they arise so that we are able to help our patients and the way our health system adapts to these changes. There are many solutions out there; it is just a matter of a paradigm shift from short-term thinking to long-term, which means cleaner technologies, greener industries and more sustainable cities and healthcare systems. Incorporating climate change into health professional education is a critical part of this paradigm shift. It is up to us to shape our future.

 

Kelly Lau is a medical student at McGill University in Canada. An active member of the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA) and currently an intern at the Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health in WHO, she led the youth campaign for climate and health for the upcoming Conference on Health and Climate. She is passionate about social justice, public health and environmental issues.