Maya Earls, E&E News reporter
Published: Monday, December 23, 2019
A new survey has found that few medical schools incorporate climate change into their curricula.
Despite the threat climate change poses to human health, very few medical schools have made it a part of their coursework.
The International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations recently conducted a survey of medical schools in 118 countries. Of the medical schools reviewed, the IFMSA found 15.9% have made climate change a part of their curricula.
Dr. Renee Salas, an emergency room doctor and climate change researcher at the Harvard Global Health Institute, said she was not surprised by the results. Through her work at Harvard, she has tried to incorporate climate change into the teachings of U.S. medical schools.
Salas said the survey shows there is an opportunity to train the next generation of physicians so they have the skills necessary to practice in a future where global warming affects every aspect of their jobs.
“Climate change is truly that threat multiplier,” she said. “It impacts, in my opinion, every facet of how we practice medicine.”
The health impacts of climate change are numerous. More days with extreme heat could account for an increase of 1 million deaths each year in India alone (Climatewire, Nov. 1). Wildfires, which are also predicted to increase, pose a threat to people with respiratory conditions (Climatewire, Dec. 16). And the changing climate is exposing more people to vector-borne diseases such as Zika and Lyme (Climatewire, Oct. 30).
Sheri Weiser, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said her own interest in climate change was spurred by research into food insecurity. The more she studied the subject, the more she found the issue was significantly exacerbated by climate change.
For example, an August study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found increased climate shocks could reduce gains that have been made in lowering the rates of stunting caused by poor childhood nutrition. The United Nations also issued a report that found the number of people suffering from hunger in 2018 reached an eight-year high due to economic, political and climate-related factors.
Weiser is now a leader in incorporating climate change into the university’s curriculum.
“One of the biggest barriers is competing priorities,” she said. “And how to add content without taking away content.”
Medical school curriculum by nature is always changing to include new research. An Association of American Medical Colleges survey of 147 medical schools in 2017-2018 found 34.7% were planning to make a curriculum change in the future. The survey found 30.6% of schools already had a curriculum change in the process.
There are natural fits in the curriculum to bring climate change into the conversation, according to Weiser. For example, the study of infectious disease presents an opportunity to discuss how more people could be affected.
Salas echoed that idea, saying that schools can add climate change to lessons of asthma and other conditions.
“My approach is all they need to do is add a climate lens to what they’re already teaching,” she said.