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Why climate change matters

How can med schools help future physicians face the greatest challenge of our time?

Cell biology, immunology, biochemistry, genetics, anatomy—the list of things you have to learn about in med school might sometimes seem endless. But all of this subject matter is essential to prepare you for your career; it’s the foundation upon which your ability to practice medicine will be built and learning it will equip you with the tools you’ll need to address the most important health issues of the future.

And in the coming years there may be no health issue more important than climate change.

When we talk about climate change, it’s often in the context of the environment; how global warming is affecting the atmosphere, how pollution is affecting the landscape. But the toll that these changes are taking on human health across the world is just as malignant. Because of course it is: we live in these landscapes, we breathe this atmosphere. So, how should future physicians prepare themselves to address the health issues that climate change brings? And how can med schools help?

There are some very obvious ways that climate change threatens public health. Heatwaves in major metropolitan areas are very dangerous for vulnerable and elderly populations (climate scientists have confirmed that July 2019 was the hottest month ever recorded). For the last several months, northern India has been being plagued by poisonous smog. But there are more insidious effects, too. The scarcity of food and clean water caused by floods and droughts can lead to chronic health issues for those living in affected areas. The spread of infectious diseases can be accelerated by changes in the weather. And, in addition to the immediate physical threat that extreme weather events pose, the aftermath can also be devastating to both the physical and mental health of the population.

The truth is, there’s no way climate change doesn’t affect our health.

As we know, medical schools have a long history of adapting to changing times, and they will have to reckon with the harsh truths of climate change—much sooner than later. The good news is, student groups across the world are ahead of the curve when it comes to recognizing the necessity of incorporating climate change into med school curricula. The International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations (IFMSA) and the Canadian Federation of Medical Students (CFMS) right here at home, are currently advocating for such changes to be made.

But, as you know, there’s already so, so much to learn in med school. How can climate change be integrated into an already overloaded curricula? In a recent essay, Stanford University med student Anna Goshua shared some ideas:

“The medical curriculum lends itself to promoting eco-medical literacy and sustainability over all four years of education. During the preclinical years, this could take the form of connecting pathophysiology to climate, such as how climate change contributes to cardiovascular disease. A health policy course could be an opportunity to discuss relevant climate change policy action and opportunities for student engagement. During clerkships, the focus could be on how to identify and communicate with patients who are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, as well as diagnose and manage climate-related physical and mental health issues.”

While some schools in the U.S. – including the University of Minnesota and University of California – have already begun to incorporate climate-related material into their existing classes (for example: diagnostic exercises on wildfire-related respiratory issues), Canadian med schools are still trying to find a way to best address climate change topics into an already jam-packed class schedule.

The climate advocacy group within CFMS, known as HEART (Health and Environment Adaptive Response Task Force), will be polling med students at all Canadian faculties on the current state of climate education in their particular program—and then they will use that data to assess how well those programs are addressing climate change in their curriculum.

From air pollution, to natural disasters, to the food and water shortages that result, the list of urgent international health issues that can be tied directly to climate change is long—and, unfortunately, still growing. And however climate change and its effects are integrated into medical education, the fact remains that future physicians are in a unique position to face the threat of climate change head-on—as educators, advocates, and care providers.