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The Clock Is Ticking on Addressing Climate Change — Med Students Can Help

Climate change is here, climate change is in our face, and climate change is just as relevant to physicians as it is to lobbyists or politicians

The clock is ticking faster than ever before.

The latest report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns us that we have only 12 years left to keep the maximum temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius and, thus, avoid calamitous environmental devastation.

This report, over 1200 pages and written by 91 researchers across 44 countries, explains that global emissions will have to be slashed by 45 percent to reach this new target. Currently, it is estimated that the world’s temperature will rise by 3 degrees Celsius should no new measures be taken. While the difference between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees Celsius may not seem substantial, make no mistake about it – the difference is absolutely staggering. At a temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius, 18 percent of insects species, 8 percent of plants, and 4 percent of all vertebrates would lose more than half their habitat (as compared to 6 percent, 8 percent, and 4 percent respectively at 1.5 degrees Celsius). Furthermore, 50 percent more land would be converted from savannahs to deserts.

The impact on human health is most concerning to healthcare professionals like me: an estimated 420 million people will be regularly exposed to extreme temperatures, which translates to at least 250,000 additional deaths per year. Furthermore, extreme weather events such as more frequent hurricanes, tornadoes, and tsunamis will cause thousands of more deaths per year. Add in the increased morbidity and mortality caused by changes that effect the social and environmental determinants of health – clean air, safe drinking water, and sufficient food sources– and it is clear that physicians must be uniquely and unequivocally aware of the impacts of climate change to safeguard their patients’ health.

Given both the urgency of curtailing the rise in temperatures and the fact that tomorrow’s physicians will have to deal with a patient population strongly affected by these forecasted conditions, climate change education should be a part of medical education. At Drexel College of Medicine, students like me are exposed to a voluntary seminar series on the impacts of climate change on their patient populations.

The series is broken into three different sessions: Session 1 is about climate change basics, including the science behind climate change, and answers the question, “Why should doctors care about this issue?” Last year, this first seminar was very well attended because many students were curious and had never been taught about the intersection of climate change and patient health. There is a hole in the medical education system when it comes to climate change, and there is a clear need for such a series.

Once medical students understood this linkage, we were motivated to attend the next two seminars that covered the topics of heat morbidity, public health emergency preparedness, air quality, and asthma. Each of the final two seminars ended with exercises and interactive activities that taught medical students to communicate these messages to their patients.

The end goal of the seminar series was not only to educate medical students about the impacts of climate change, but also to encourage and teach them to talk to their patients about this issue. Students at Drexel have always had plenty of opportunities to talk to patients – through community care practicum classes that require students to meet with patients once a week, volunteerism through free clinics, and other outlets. Now, we can leverage these new skills to have meaningful conversations about climate change during those opportunities. For example, with summers in Philadelphia getting hotter every year (as evidenced by the rising number of days above 95 degrees Fahrenheit), I spoke to a young mother and her five year old boy about signs of heat exhaustion and heat related morbidity. I wanted to make sure both the mother and her son understood proper precautions to take to avoid heat related illnesses. I found it particularly necessary to have this conversation with the mother since she couldn’t always afford air conditioning at home, and her child played outside for hours on end.

My experiences with climate change education at Drexel have shown me that not only are medical students curious and willing to learn about climate change, but there is also a demand amongst patients to learn about how this will impact their health.

I believe climate change education for medical students should be mandatory, as these students will be the physicians that will have to care for patients most affected by climate change. Furthermore, medical students should also be used as a vector to spread awareness amongst people — because of their stature and trustworthiness in the eyes of patients, doctors are uniquely positioned to explain the facts and myths behind climate change.

Climate change is here, climate change is in our face, and climate change is just as relevant to physicians as it is to lobbyists or politicians.

We have 12 years to curb the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Now more than ever, it is time for all hands on deck. Let’s make sure we don’t leave out the hands of medical students.

Sidhant (Sid) Gugale is a second year medical student at Drexel College of Medicine in Philadelphia, and a student member of Physicians for Social Responsibility

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