Why physicians are on the front lines of climate change care

September 10, 2017

In today’s polarized society, Americans trust few sources for information on climate change. One trusted source is physicians.

In fact, according to a joint study (PDF) conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, primary care physicians are the most trusted source for information on climate change issues related to health.

Moreover, this trust is largely consistent across all consumer segments regardless of current beliefs and attitudes toward climate change. This puts physicians in a unique position in society today to influence such sentiments.

Climate change is already having an impact on human health through extreme heat and weather events. It is also exacerbating pre-existing conditions such as asthma and allergies. This is especially true on days when conditions such as high ozone levels or pollen counts make symptoms worse.

This impact on human health differs by region based on local climate conditions. For example, the ragweed pollen season has lengthened by nearly three weeks in the Upper Midwest, no doubt exacerbating symptoms for allergy sufferers there.

Such impact on human health also has a cost: A recent study (PDF) estimates that health-related costs associated with climate change were $14 billion between 2002 and 2009. Without aggressive mitigation efforts, costs are expected to climb further and could reach $14 billion per year by 2020.

As this public health risk increases from climate change, physicians will find themselves on the front lines of patient care for those that are affected by it. As such, there is a growing role for physicians to play in and out of the exam room.

Two good first steps

Political advocacy

Certainly, physicians can advocate for policy change — as individual practitioners or collectively through professional associations such as the American Medical Association and the Global Climate Health Alliance.

While climate change is a politicized issue, it is “easier for a policy maker to pay attention to climate change when it is positioned as a health issue,” said Cindy Parker, assistant professor of environmental health sciences at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University.

Indeed, physician advocacy is having an impact on policy makers, as evidenced by the first Summit on Public Health and Climate Change at the White House last year.

Leading by example

Some suggest that physicians lead by example: by greening their office; switching to renewables, or promoting recycling. This enables physicians to communicate a “lifestyle message” to their patients, according to Parker. This includes posting signs or distributing reading materials and pamphlets in the waiting room about how climate change could affect their health and what they can do about it.

Physician-patient dialogue could improve patient outcomes

Patient care

While some physicians might be reluctant to take a public stance on climate change, most physicians will have to consider its implications when it comes to patient care. Already a growing chorus of physicians is calling for more direct dialogue with patients about the health risks associated with climate change. By doing so, physicians hope to promote better disease management and prevention.

Emerging model for physician-patient dialogue promote patient care

Emerging human behavioral models focused on adaptation to climate change suggest that physician-patient dialogue could have a discernable impact on patient outcomes.

An essential first step is that patients need to be aware that climate change impacts human health. As a recent study points out that while many Americans have “a general sense that global warming can be harmful to health, relatively few understand the types of harm it causes or who is most likely to be affected.”

As such, physicians can play an essential role in ensuring that patients — especially those most at risk — have a cognitive understanding of this connection.

Yet, awareness in of itself is likely not enough for people to take action to minimize personal health risks. In a study (PDF) about human behavior in response to extreme weather, Sander van der Linden, director of the social and environmental decision-making lab at Princeton University, demonstrates that personal experiences can motivate adaptive behavior change.

But to do so, personal experiences not only must be associated with a perception of risk but also negative feelings toward that risk.

“Personal concern can be harnessed into a vehicle for positive change,” said van der Linden, when combined with “adaptive knowledge” regarding what to do about it.

This study has applicability to physicians when communicating with patients about climate change-related health risks. As trusted authority figures, physicians can validate what their patients are already experiencing (allergy seasons are growing longer; summer heat waves are becoming more severe).

By doing so, physicians can help patients connect personal experiences with greater health risks. When coupled with suggested ways to reduce these risks, patients may feel more empowered to take action.

Climate change is already having an adverse effect on human health. There is a growing role for physicians to engage with policy makers and patients to promote better patient outcomes. With the allergy season fast approaching, there is no better time for action.

— Originally published on Greenbiz, 2016

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