On Sept. 5, more than 230 medical journals across the world, including the New England Journal of Medicine and the International Journal of Medical Students, came together to publish a joint statement demanding “urgent action to keep average global temperature increases below 1.5 C, halt the destruction of nature and protect health.” Prominent members of medical journals from around the world who authored this statement say that “the science is unequivocal: a global increase of 1.5° C above the pre-industrial average and the continued loss of biodiversity, risk catastrophic harm to health that will be impossible to reverse.”
We, medical students and residents, who are the health care workforce of the future, face this growing public health crisis with alarm. This past summer, the news was full of reports of unprecedented powerful storms and flooding across the U.S. as well as drought, heat waves and wildfire smoke blanketing the Northwest for weeks on end.
Human-caused climate change is here and we can no longer ignore it. With respect to health, it is a risk multiplier, particularly for those already being marginalized with chronic health conditions and vulnerable groups such as the elderly, children, pregnant women, people of color and those living in poorer communities.
Not only is physical health dramatically impacted by natural disasters, we see declines in mental health as well. Wildfire smoke is associated with increases in preterm delivery, heart disease, worsening asthma and other lung conditions. If that’s not hot enough, temperature trends between 1988-2017 indicate that Yakima had a higher temperature increase (+3 °F) compared to that of Seattle (+1°F) and Olympia (+0.5°F), further indicating the disproportionate effects that climate change has on our vulnerable populations in the Yakima Valley: American Indian/Alaska Native, Hispanic/Latino and farmworkers.
Heat-related mortality among people over 65 has increased by more than 50%. This past summer the Washington Department of Health reported on their website that June-July’s heat wave was associated with 100 heat-related deaths, including eight in Yakima County. A CDC analysis of emergency department visits during June’s heat wave showed heat-related illness emergency department visits from June 25-30 were 69 times higher than that during the same days in 2019.
As the world continues to heat up, increasing climate-related events will strain our medical resources and diverge our health care workforce from the management of chronic health conditions and preventive care, which is vital to keeping our communities healthy.
The past year and a half of the COVID pandemic is a distinct example of what happens when our medical system is overwhelmed by a global crisis and non-urgent medical care is pushed to the side.
As medical students and residents, many of whom plan to work in economically disadvantaged, immigrant, rural and international communities, climate change will amplify the challenges we already have in delivery of quality care to vulnerable communities.
The “Call for Emergency Action” states that those countries that have contributed most to the fossil fuel pollution must also be most responsible for shouldering the financial cost of transitioning away from fossil fuels to stabilize our climate and preserve nature.
We as health professionals are committed to helping to transition to a sustainable, fairer and healthier world. To our legislators: Get serious about climate change for our future health.