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My Patients’ Health Depends on Addressing Climate Change

Autumn Vogel, Medical Student and Student PSR member

As a fourth-year medical student, I’ve learned plenty about caring for patients with common illnesses and injuries. But as a native of fire-ravaged Northern California, and a student in Pennsylvania — where I hear regularly about communities torn apart by the natural gas industry — I can’t help but worry about my ability to care for my patients in an age of climate change.

Climate change isn’t just an environmental crisis, after all. It’s a looming health crisis. More hurricanes, floods, droughts, and wildfires means more disease, dehydration, famine, injury, and death.

Our health system is already overburdened, and extreme climate change could put it over the edge. And it will unfortunately be our most vulnerable communities — low income communities, communities of color, and places where health care is already hard to come by — who will suffer the worst consequences.

While my medical school’s curriculum encourages deep thinking about how to expand health care for underserved communities, it’s included little if any acknowledgement of the coming climate catastrophe.

Some medical colleges are beginning to wake up to the need to prepare the future generation of physicians to handle these challenges, and more colleges are joining this critical effort each day. For example, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai recently launched a Climate Change Curriculum Infusion Project, which seeks to prepare future physicians by weaving the impacts of climate change on health into existing medical curriculum.

We know that climate change is real, manmade, and accelerating far beyond what researchers originally predicted. It’s not up for debate. There are countless studies to back that up — including the Special Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the 2018 Global Climate Report, and the Fourth National Climate Assessment, to name a few.

We didn’t create this pending catastrophe — an overzealous, greedy fossil fuel industry did. But my generation will have to bear the consequences of their recklessness, and a whole generation of doctors, nurses, and other health professionals will have to care for those who suffer.

As the data rolls in, we understand that climate change has already begun to make permanent

changes to our world — and that only rapid, sweeping changes to our energy system and environmental policies will even begin to mitigate the damage.

The truth is we’re moving too slow. Under the current U.S. administration, we’re in fact moving in the wrong direction if we hope to minimize this looming health crisis. We need to commit to zero emissions and an overhaul of our energy system to renewables — yesterday.

Whatever happens on the policy front, health professionals need to be ready for the disruptions we know are coming.

Medical colleges are in a unique position, and have a distinct obligation, to prepare future generations of physicians for the challenge of a lifetime. Medical students need our educators to help us — not only to prepare our medical practice, but to take leadership in pushing for the sweeping policy changes required to avert the worst consequences of this impending disaster.

We need everyone to wake up and see that if we don’t act boldly now, we’ll have a crisis too big for our system to handle — and too much for any budding physician’s hands to hold.

Autumn Vogel is a fourth-year medical student at Penn State College of Medicine and a student representative on the board of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Originally published in OtherWords and featured in the Sunday Patriot-News.