Recently I found myself in a room full of students all about twelve years younger than me staring very intently in my direction. I was the only physician at the University’s Inter-Sustainability Council meeting. This was not the first time I was the only physician in a room when it came to the issue of climate change. I was representing our hospital on their undergraduate board. As I briefed them on the public health crisis in front of us, it was clear to me that their depth of knowledge and insight on the issue meant I was dealing with a new generation who was much more informed and with different priorities than those prior. There was no way I could not feel hopeful. Their enthusiasm was infectious. And their questions were daunting. I didn’t have answers for many of them.
It became abundantly clear to me that healthcare, a field so dear to me and intricately tied with serving the public, is unfortunately not yet a leader in this crisis. As a physician in that room, I felt guilty and inadequate. But there was one advantage I had. Every day, my physician colleagues and I see the direct effects of climate change and unsustainable practices on the patients we serve.
Asthma exacerbations, heat-related illnesses, food and waterborne disease exposures, mental health decompensations…sound familiar? These are chief complaints we see all the time. Studies have predicted that these types of medical issues and many others will only get worse as the climate crisis progresses. How will communities and hospitals handle the crisis as resources become scarce? Where will our most vulnerable patients go? And as clinicians—are we prepared for it?
These were not the questions I thought I would be asking when I decided to become a physician advocate for sustainable practices. In medical school, my musings were mostly “where does all this hospital plastic waste go?” and “this hospital could use some solar panels.” I wasn’t naïve. I was just under-informed. Fortunately, there is a remedy for being under-informed.
We have an opportunity before us that really cannot wait anymore. We have future generations that depend on us. They are expecting us to be prepared and conveniently, we already have many of the tools we need to move forward.
Watch the FIX19 talk below!