The healthcare sector is often the first to witness the impacts of poor air quality, extreme weather patterns and other climate related hazards that impact the health of their community. From heat waves to floods and exposure to rapidly spreading vector borne illnesses like malaria, lyme disease and more recently the Zika virus, the nexus of climate change and human health gets stronger every day.
We asked our director of research, Nik Steinberg, to present his work to inform the healthcare industry about the effects of climate change and the trends he is observing in how healthcare professionals approach climate change.
1. Tell us more about your work with the healthcare industry and how you help them build resilience into their operations.
Last year we built a new decision-support tool for hospitals across the United States. The work was fascinating because it combined systems analysis, climate science, and epidemiology. We started by identifying all the projected climate hazards within a hospital’s service area and then we sorted out the characteristics of those hazards – their projected frequency, severity, and timing. From there, we determined if the hazard was likely to impact the hospital itself and/ or the health and safety of the community. Next, we attempted to co-locate the hazards with exposed populations and facility systems to get a better idea of which type of patients are most exposed to heat waves and poor air quality, and where those patients live.
Our work is quite novel because it transforms something that once might have felt uncertain and ambiguous for some healthcare professionals — climate change impacts — and places it in context of their local hospital, community, and the people they interact with everyday.
We have observed that resilience building in the public health sector starts with a willingness and capacity to change – for whatever reason that may be. Our tool facilitates the information gathering and lays the foundation for an impact assessment, giving health professionals a defensible starting point and powerful communication tool on the local impacts of climate change on their patients.
2. What can healthcare professionals gain from learning about the risks of climate change, and your work specifically?
After our detailed research is complete, we step back and look for hotspots and correlations. Do future heat waves and poor air quality pose a considerable health risk to the community? Which patients are most exposed and where do they live? Is there a strong poverty-health connection in the community? How likely is it that heavy rainfall will become more severe over time and affect ambulatory services and hospital access?
These are the questions we try to address in our work so that hospitals can prioritize their resilience efforts and reach out to certain parts of the community or strengthen parts of the facility.
Many healthcare professionals are aware of these climate-related risks and their connection to the communities they serve, but this work helps outline the linkages that connect climate change and health at a local level and assigns real numbers to the expected impacts of that dynamic connection.
3. What trends are you seeing at the nexus of human health and climate change?
Human health has always been influenced by climate and weather, but the growing frequency of extremes like drought and flood and extreme temperatures generates a whole new set of challenges. Take, for example, the recent spread of the Zika virus and the drought-flood cycles that led up to heavy downpours across much of Brazil, leaving pools, puddles, and ponds for mosquito breeding, and allowing the Aedes spp. mosquito to surge across the country and eventually the rest of the Americas.
Unfortunately, changing rainfall patterns, like many climate impacts, tend to have a disproportionate effect on the vulnerable. A similar story can be told about oppressive heat. Global temperature increases also mean more severe extreme temperature, and recent heat waves in India, Russia, and even the U.S. hit the poor and outdoor laborers the hardest. Changing weather patterns and shifting climate zones will also expose new populations to these extremes.
Health effects are not always physical, and there is growing research showing the association between mental health and climate change. For illnesses like Lyme Disease or West Nile Virus, the mental health effects are very direct, but more often, the psychological responses to both disasters and acute ongoing impacts can induce a range of mental health consequences. I think the discussion around mental health and climate change will continue to grow as public health officials work to identify vulnerable populations and decipher the attribution of things like severe heat, poor air, and disasters to well-being.
There are positive trends, however, in the way researchers and public health officials are tracing vulnerability and identifying pathways of exposure. The body of research at the nexus of public health and climate change is growing, and one of the most promising outcomes of this work is the story it tells. From hospital directors to policymakers, decision-makers understand that our community’s health calls for aggressive action on the public health front to minimize and respond to a range of imminent new threats that were once uncertain or distant.