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Healthcare confronts climate change: Schools, providers focus on health effects to dampen political opposition

By Andis Robeznieks  | June 13, 2015

A number of medical, nursing and public health schools around the country are launching programs to train students about the effects of climate change on health and how to reduce its impact.

In addition, some health systems have established ambitious green initiatives to reduce their own carbon footprint and inspire broader climate change initiatives.

Some leaders of the efforts say they are stressing the health-promoting features of the initiatives to minimize political opposition to mentions of climate change.

In April, about 30 leaders of U.S. medical, nursing and public health schools met at the White House and pledged to train the next generation of healthcare professionals in how to address the health effects of climate change. “Climate change is absolutely a critical public health issue,” said Dr. Ali Khan, dean of the University of Nebraska Medical Center's College of Public Health, who attended the meeting along with Dr. Bradley Britigan, dean of the university's College of Medicine.

Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health also signed the White House pledge. Dr. Cindy Parker, director of Johns Hopkins' global environmental change and sustainability program, said the school plans to host a climate change and health symposium this fall in advance of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris this December.

Parker, author of a 2008 book on climate change and health that is used as a textbook, called climate change “a risk amplifier. There isn't a disease that directly results from climate change. It just makes some more likely.”

Tulane University's School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine is another school committed to training future healthcare professionals about climate change. LuAnn White, director of the Tulane Center for Applied Environmental Public Health, said the school will integrate climate change into existing courses rather than create a new program. 

Sue Ann Bell, a clinical associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Nursing, is pleased the school plans to provide climate change-related education “because it's very important for nurses to take leadership on this important issue,” she said.

“Climate change is a hot-button topic. So as a nurse educator, I focus on the empirical facts,” she added. “We're seeing longer allergy seasons, and because of that, we're seeing increased respiratory disorders.”

Kathleen Potempa, dean at the University of Michigan School of Nursing, said her school will take a big-picture perspective on the issue.

“Climate change is presumed to affect health in many ways directly as thermal stress, extreme weather disasters and infectious disease,” she said. “We are preparing our students to be leaders in a global context.”

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