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5 things medical professionals can do to take climate action 

The flurry of recent articles on the adverse effects of climate change on health are almost as overwhelming as the climate crisis itself. Just this past year, over 300 medical students came together to found Medical Students for a Sustainable Future (MS4SF), an international coalition that recognizes climate change as the greatest health emergency of our century. Recent KevinMD articles, “Dear medical community, it’s time to engage in the climate movement” and “Uphold your Hippocratic Oath by advocating for action on climate change,” perfectly articulate the urgency with which the medical community must mobilize to engage in the climate movement. So, if you’re wondering what you can do to take climate action as a physician or medical student, here are 5 action items for you:

1. Help elect climate champions into office.

  • Vote! Not sure who to vote for in your precinct? Check out your local Sunrise branch to see which climate champions they are endorsing! To see which campaign has the smartest climate policies, check out the League of Conservation Voters election scorecard for the U.S. Congress members and check out the MS4SF election scorecard for the 2020 presidential election. 
  • Once you identify your local climate champions, help phonebank or donate money to the candidates you support the most.
  • Help uphold a healthy democracy! Before any election, help your patients come up with a safe voting plan, and on election day, help hospitalized patients vote.

2. Join a physician or medical student advocacy group and take collective action. 

Over 67 percent of Americans trust health professionals for information and guidance on climate change, yet only 19 percent of Americans have actually heard about climate change from their physicians. To get involved and become a climate-health advocate, join these advocacy groups: 

3. Green your department or clinic.

As health professionals sworn to “First, do no harm,” we have a moral obligation to critically examine our carbon footprint. The US healthcare system contributes to 10 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions. We are part of the problem and contribute to the adverse health outcomes of our patients in our emissions and waste streams. 

  • Step 1: At your institution, join or start a committee to address healthcare sustainability! Identify measures your institution is already taking to reduce its environmental footprint.
  • Step 2: Check out Healthcare Without Harm and Practice Greenhealth to get all the resources you need to get started and green your campus. These organizations are international leaders in climate-smart healthcare solutions. 
  • Step 3: Start a project! Example: Tackle red bag waste to save your hospital money and drastically reduce carbon footprint. 

4. Learn about climate and health. 

Climate change is not only increasing the number of deadly natural disasters like heat waves, hurricanes, and wildfires, but also increasing our rates of COPD exacerbations, heart failure, cancers, and infectious diseases. Learn more about how to counsel patients about climate change. Learn about key policies and resources you can advocate for to protect your patients from climate change. 

  • Looking for CME credit? Check out the Climate Change and Health Certificate offered by Yale School of Public Health. 
  • Looking for a free, 7-week, self-paced online course? Harvard University hosts Health Effects of Climate Change. This course has a 3 to 5 hour per week expected time commitment.
  • Want to learn at your own time? Click through videos in this free archive of lectures at Emory School of Medicine given by leading physician climate advocates across the country. 

5. Now that you’re an expert, educate your peers!
We must prepare current and future physicians to treat patients in the context of their increasingly complex climactic, social, and environmental determinants of health. Yet, less than 15 percent of medical schools worldwide discuss climate change in medical education. Here are some resources on climate-health education.  

As health professionals, we have the platform to enact change within our own institutions, as well as local and federal governments. We must elect leaders and officials who spearhead climate action. We must reduce the carbon footprint of healthcare. And we must educate our colleagues and our patients about the impact of climate change on health. 

We need every single one of us to take action. Our patients’ health depends on it.

Natasha Sood and Sarah Hsu are medical students.

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