Emory med school teaches health risks of climate change

Emory School of Medicine's administration is making climate change a formal part of its curriculum. (Pixabay Images)

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Emory School of Medicine’s administration is making climate change a formal part of its curriculum. 

It’s the culmination of several years of student-led efforts to ensure Emory’s future doctors learn about the growing health impacts of a warming planet, because climate change doesn’t just bring hotter weather and more extreme storms. It also makes many health issues worse — issues doctors need to recognize and treat.

Those issues were top of mind for second-year medical student Irene Liu when she was applying to medical schools. She had been interested in climate advocacy for a long time, and wanted to find a school where she could focus on the environment – but that didn’t work out.

“I didn’t find a medical school with that specific track, so I really didn’t expect to learn about it at all,” Liu said. 

But when she got to Emory, she found out students were already working on it.

Fourth-year student Ben Rabin shared her concern when he’d started several years before Liu, because climate change affects health in so many ways: air pollution driving strokes and asthma, preterm birth and low birth weight, mosquito-borne diseases, not to mention the mental health impact of worsening hurricanes and wildfires. 

But lectures rarely mentioned the added risks and complications from climate change.

By the time Liu got to Emory, Rabin and classmate Emaline Laney had worked with faculty to weave climate change into the standard things all medical students learn, not just those who choose a particular class or track.

“So for example, we learn a lot about kidney injury, and kidney failure,” Rabin said. “And so we wanted to talk about what are some of the risks of extreme heat?”

He said it’s easier to get dehydrated when it’s very hot, and that can lead to kidney failure.

Dr. Becca Philipsborn, the faculty advisor for the climate curriculum, said incorporating climate change into the existing curriculum made sense because it’s “core knowledge,” not a separate issue.

She credited students for leading the effort.

“I would not have thought as a still junior faculty member to go to the med school and say, ‘This is what we need to be teaching the students,’” Philipsborn said. “But the students had that vision, they came forward with the demand and said, ‘This is the greatest health challenge of our time, we need to be learning about it.’”

More and more medical schools are teaching students about climate change, according to Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. 

He said students often drive changes like this. They’ve pushed schools to better address racism and to incorporate telemedicine, and they’re leading the charge on climate change too. He said it’s especially important to teach this early in a doctor’s career. 

“You can get physicians to be a little more holistic in their approach, and recognize these social determinants make a difference,” Benjamin said.

And he said it’s about more than just better treating patients.

“Physicians are influential in their community. And so making sure they understand that [to] connect the dots for human health is important,” he said.

That’s exactly what med student Irene Liu is hoping — that recognizing and discussing health impacts of climate change in the doctor’s office can drive bigger changes.

“I think that raising awareness to our patients about how air pollution and warming and wildfires are affecting your health and your children will have rippling effects,” she said. “I think I’ll hopefully motivate members in the community.”

Having these discussions in med school has had that effect on Liu. She called it eye-opening.

“It made me realize that there’s nothing within our health system that climate change doesn’t touch,” she said.