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Despite Climate Change Health Threats, Few Medical Schools Teach It

Despite the threat climate change poses to human health, very few medical schools have made it a part of their coursework.

The International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations recently conducted a survey of medical schools in 118 countries. Of the medical schools reviewed, the IFMSA found 15.9% have made climate change a part of their curricula.

Dr. Renee Salas, an emergency room doctor and climate change researcher at the Harvard Global Health Institute, said she was not surprised by the results. Through her work at Harvard, she has tried to incorporate climate change into the teachings of U.S. medical schools.

Salas said the survey shows there is an opportunity to train the next generation of physicians so they have the skills necessary to practice in a future where global warming affects every aspect of their jobs.

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“Climate change is truly that threat multiplier,” she said. “It impacts, in my opinion, every facet of how we practice medicine.”

The health impacts of climate change are numerous. More days with extreme heat could account for an increase of 1 million deaths each year in India alone (Climatewire, Nov. 1). Wildfires, which are also predicted to increase, pose a threat to people with respiratory conditions (Climatewire, Dec. 16). And the changing climate is exposing more people to vector-borne diseases such as Zika and Lyme (Climatewire, Oct. 30).

Sheri Weiser, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said her own interest in climate change was spurred by research into food insecurity. The more she studied the subject, the more she found the issue was significantly exacerbated by climate change.

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For example, an August study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found increased climate shocks could reduce gains that have been made in lowering the rates of stunting caused by poor childhood nutrition. The United Nations also issued a report that found the number of people suffering from hunger in 2018 reached an eight-year high due to economic, political and climate-related factors.

Weiser is now a leader in incorporating climate change into the university’s curriculum.

“One of the biggest barriers is competing priorities,” she said. “And how to add content without taking away content.”

Medical school curriculum by nature is always changing to include new research. An Association of American Medical Colleges survey of 147 medical schools in 2017-2018 found 34.7% were planning to make a curriculum change in the future. The survey found 30.6% of schools already had a curriculum change in the process.

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There are natural fits in the curriculum to bring climate change into the conversation, according to Weiser. For example, the study of infectious disease presents an opportunity to discuss how more people could be affected.

Salas echoed that idea, saying that schools can add climate change to lessons of asthma and other conditions.

“My approach is all they need to do is add a climate lens to what they’re already teaching,” she said.

This solution has its own hurdle, as there are few climate experts currently in the medical field. That’s why Salas says medical schools need to focus on collaboration and developing electronic curriculum that could be used to more easily spread growing knowledge from existing experts.

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“We are in an era where we’re stronger together,” she said. “We can learn from each other, figure out what works and share information.”

The IFMSA survey found there is some action on climate change happening in medical schools from the ground up. Of the schools surveyed, about 60% reported they had at least one student-led educational activity on climate change.

“Students today are a part of that generation that has grown up seeing climate change as a daily part of their existence,” Salas said. “For them, it just makes sense that climate change is going to impact the way they will care for patients and will have growing implications.”

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Overall, Weiser said doctors need to be a part of the climate discourse to help improve the health of people and the planet.

“I believe having a bigger voice in that helps health in the long term and health in the short term,” she said.

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.

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