Floods, Disease, and Heat Stroke: Why You Need to Incorporate the Health Effects of Climate Change into Your Practice

There’s growing consensus in the medical community that residents and providers in training should receive education on the health effects of climate change. From the spread of infectious disease to air quality, wildfires, and tropical storms, the changing environment will continue to affect our health.

That’s why Dr. Gaurab Basu from the Cambridge Health Alliance started teaching an elective course on the health effects of climate change, so his residents can incorporate this knowledge into their repertoire of skills before they go off on their own.

Some providers and institutions say the industry needs to do much more to prepare doctors and nurses for the future of climate change, while others say educating students on these issues could be a mistake.

The Gathering Storm

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that climate change will shape the future of healthcare. According to the World Health Organization, between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress. Overall, the health effects of climate change will likely cost between $2-4 billion by the year 2030.

Rising temperatures, unpredictable tropical storms, and the spread of disease can all be a danger to your patients. Coastal areas will see larger hurricanes and more rainfall, increasing their chances of flooding. Standing water and warm temperatures will also attract mosquitoes, increasing the spread of disease, including the West Nile virus.

For warmer regions, temperatures will continue to soar, putting additional stress on the body. On August 16th, 2020, California reported a high temperature of 130 degrees F, which is considered the hottest August temperature on record for the U.S. Heat stress and heat exhaustion can lead to dizziness, nausea, fatigue, and even organ damage and brain failure.

Every community will need to find ways to combat these trends, but providers and community leaders can start by recognizing that climate change poses a threat to our health.

Learning to Spot the Signs

Dr. Gaurab Basu says he’s learned a lot about how climate change can affect his patients and practice. He’s been treating a patient who’s recovering from the West Nile virus, which wasn’t on his radar just a few years ago. Instead of assuming the patient is suffering from fatigue or heat stroke, he’s learning to keep an open mind.

Before 2002, there were no cases of West Nile virus in Massachusetts, but today there are 49.

Dr. Basu talks about how these trends have changed his understanding of medicine. “When someone comes in with a fever and is confused, it’s not what my mind thinks of as the diagnosis right away. This case has really taught me how much I need to be informed about the ways in which climate change is changing the patterns of infectious disease around the United States.”

He’s excited to teach a class on these issues, but he says medical residents need much more than an elective course.

Several schools and educators are starting to incorporate these issues into their learning materials, but advocates say residents won’t get the message unless they are tested on the health effects of climate change when applying for a medical license.

How to Get Started

If you’re not sure how to incorporate the effects of climate change into your practice, you’re not alone. Climate change is a slow-moving process, and some of your patients may have trouble wrapping their heads around these ideas. For some facilities and institutions, applying these ideas in the classroom or exam room can be a challenge.

Pediatrician Rebecca Philipsborn at Emory University is trying to change all that. She recently published a framework, Climate Change and the Practice of Medicine, in the journal Academic Monitor to help providers incorporate these ideas into their practice.

It talks about the challenges providers and their patients will face in the years to come, particularly how climate change will affect elderly and low-income individuals who may not have the means to protect themselves from infectious disease, extreme temperatures, and violent tropical storms. Use this paper to understand the full scope of these trends and how they can put your patients at risk.

As a pediatrician, she also approaches this topic from the perspective of a concerned parent. As she wrote in 2018 in her landmark paper, Climate Change and Global Child Health, “Globally, children are estimated to bear 88% of the burden of disease due to climate change, with the poorest disproportionately affected.” It’s also repairing the psychological effects in children that have lived through various crises, such as systemic drought, floods, heat waves, and tropical storms.

From extreme heat to accessing food and clean drinking water, climate change will have an affect on your patients one way or another. Elderly and low-income individuals tend to be the most at risk, but it’s not exactly clear what the future holds. Keep these ideas in mind to help your patients navigate the changing climate.

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