In order to advocate for the inclusion of climate change curriculum into medical education, and to highlight the crucial role of healthcare professionals play in treating the effects of climate change on health, the student group UBC Medical Students for Climate Action collaborated to develop climate action learning modules that are now part of the curriculum at UBC’s Faculty of Medicine. The series of learning modules were created by students Montana Blum, Lise Van Amerom, Keiko Patterson, and Sarah Poteryko and they cover topics ranging from infectious diseases to heat stroke to mental health, all of which are impacted by climate change. The group aims to educate medical professionals about the effects of climate change on health and to promote advocacy and action within the healthcare industry.
In this interview, Montana, Lise, Sarah, and Keiko share their perspectives on the role of healthcare professionals in climate action and the steps that medical schools can take to prioritize climate curricula in their education and training.
Words by Aylin Turker, Digital Content Creator
How do you think climate change will impact the health of people around the world and how can the medical profession help to mitigate these impacts?
Climate change needs to be viewed as a risk multiplier on already existing health, people's backgrounds, and the inequities that they face.
In terms of how I see that changing around the world, air pollution can be an example. As it continues to increase with greenhouse gases, we might continue to see an increase in different respiratory diseases. There's a lot of forest migration that's happening right now due to changes in climate - more so environmental, whether that is flooding, wildfires, water contamination, etc. We'll see more of an acute response, with medical responses being necessary, in those cases. Also, there are more insidious aspects of climate change on health, like mental health. One thing that's starting to be brought up in society is the impact of feeling anxious about futuristic changes in climate. There are more studies being done on Indigenous populations in Northern Canada and looking at how over time their landscape is changing, whether that's loss of the ice caps or just changes in their ability to get to and from home because of environmental changes. We'll see a lot more impacts of mental health on people as time proceeds.
In terms of healthcare mitigation, in addition to what has already been said, there is a perspective from a systems level to not only continue to incorporate education for medical students on climate change and health but also to have us integrated more into our clinical practice. When we take patient histories, it will become pertinent to ask questions such as were you exposed to chemicals and asbestos in your past, where did you grow up, were you exposed to any wildfires, etc. In terms of mental health screening, asking how has the patient been feeling about the impacts of climate change and health is also going to be important to kind of recognize those things that need to be integrated into clinical practice. A personal example of this topic is my research on the impacts of spending time in nature on mental health. Dr. Melissa Lam introduced a BC parks prescription program where you can actually prescribe to patients who spend time in nature. Continuing to try to make that more nationwide,
... encouraging more green spaces to be more accessible to lower socioeconomic status areas, and realizing how all of these efforts are not just for the planet but also for our overall health is key. We are all interconnected.
Can you describe any challenges or barriers you faced in creating and implementing these learning modules?
Montana: We all had some learning to do about knowledge translation and how to showcase the information and highlight it in a way that is easily digestible and that doesn’t leave people with an overwhelming sense of climate doom. We tried to make our content action-oriented and include case examples. Having a balance of statistics and facts as well as tangible case studies showcasing a specific town or community that might have been impacted by climate change was key. In addition to that, as none of us had experience in website design that became an issue. However, we had the opportunity to work with a website designer who became very helpful. The time management of trying to get this project up and running, while we doing our advanced clinical duties on top of school, and also wanting to make sure we were doing everything the right way without having a solid background in content design or medical education was the hardest part. It's been very much a learn-as-you-go process.
Keiko: I guess one future challenge we see is with the website. Because the climate is such an evolving field, how is our website going to be updated relevant in the coming years? How do we make sure that it's still something that people find engaging? We just don't want it to be another kind of medical education or climate education product that isn't used, for years to come. We are definitely thinking about longevity, and we have some students in the years below us that are part of the club and are going to be part of our executive team moving forwards. We also have Dr. Kapoor, who has been our supervisor and such a force in terms of helping us not have the product die, but it definitely keeps going.
How do you see the role of healthcare professionals evolving as the climate crisis continues to unfold in upcoming years and decades?
Keiko: There are four main things I can touch on.
One is that right now we're seeing a lot of acute climate crises. Whether it's the flooding, the wildfires, or COVID-19, a lot of healthcare providers take code. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, was a kind of unexpected acute response from healthcare professionals. Moving forward now that we know that these crises are increasing in frequency, trying to become more proactive and building up our response plans now is crucial.
Two, as climate change continues to evolve, the healthcare system itself is going to have to take more responsibility for how big of a contribution it is doing as an emitter of greenhouse gases. That is going to require a lot of restructuring of current policies in place, such as waste management, to try to be a model for what we would like to see.
Three, in terms of reconciliation, there are certain things that as healthcare professionals we're trying to work toward with Indigenous peoples regarding the evolving climate change. For example, the wildfires in BC are predominantly impacting different groups. Recognizing that and deciding on whether it is more funding or whether it's more collaboration with Indigenous groups is needed, more attention is going to have to be brought to that issue to ensure we are helping those communities adapt and mitigate these changes they're going to first see.
Fourth is having more of a political voice. Currently, the only one that I'm aware of, is that there was one lawsuit that officially said that climate change was the reason for the death of a young boy in the UK and it was due to air pollution. Moving forward as healthcare professionals, we're going to have to say more specifically how the changes in climate change can really impact health. It's not just necessarily saying “it could” but rather saying that “this can lead to certain co-morbidities with cardiovascular health or respiratory health”. When we're labeling someone who has died, the words in the conversation around it needs to change to actually have a bigger effect - saying that climate change can lead to death and certain other negative medical outcomes.