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Latest in health: Health care industry could help combat climate change deaths

Dr. Caren Solomon, associate professor at Harvard Medical School, argued in her editorial that physicians can combat the negative effects of climate change by individually educating patients.

In 2014, the World Health Organization said climate change will bring malaria, diarrhea, heat stress and malnutrition, which would kill 250,000 more people annually around the world from 2030 to 2050. A new report in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that number is a conservative estimate.

Dr. Caren Solomon is an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and deputy editor at New England Journal of Medicine. In an editorial Solomon co-authored to accompany the article, she argued that medical professionals have a special responsibility to try to safeguard against these deaths -- that's what we discuss today on "Take Care."

She said this new report is takes into account more factors than the WHO originally considered, shedding light on a huge issue.

“What we know is that climate change is a major problem, it’s happening now, and it has significant worrisome health consequences,” Solomon said. “It becomes clear how much disease and … death are projected if we don’t make really dramatic, immediate changes.”

Additional factors considered in the new report include the quality and quantity of crops and the widespread effects of environmental changes like increased greenhouse gas emissions and rising global temperatures, Solomon said.

"One of our responsibilities as physicians is to at least make people who are making policy well aware of the catastrophic consequences of climate change with respect to human health."

Rising temperatures leads to increasingly intense storms, and those storms result in personal injury, displacement, poor mental health and water contamination. Warmer weather means a broader distribution of diseases carried by ticks and mosquitos, such as Lyme disease. Effects on air quality have major implications for respiratory disease, heart conditions and allergies.

She said physician responbility to mitigate these effects goes back to the Hippocratic Oath of alleviating suffering.

“The health consequences related to the climate are so overwhelming,” Solomon said. “They’re a really existential threat. And so, as physicians, I would argue … that we need to be involved in whatever ways we can to try to minimize greenhouse gases, to have other changes that are going to help people remain healthy.”

Solomon said she is aware the healthcare sector emits a lot of greenhouse gas itself, accounting for about 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. If it were a country, it would rank seventh in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. But, she said, professionals in the medical sector are prepared to act proactively.

“Many, many hospitals and healthcare centers are taking this concern very, very seriously,” Solomon said.

Among the actions Solomon supports is physicians speaking directly with politicians to lobby for change.

“One of our responsibilities as physicians is to at least make people who are making policy well aware of the catastrophic consequences of climate change with respect to human health,” Solomon said. “As people understand those issues more, it should and it would become a major consideration.”

Solomon argued that preventative approaches such as this are preferable to treating diseases and other effects of climate change, attacking the problem at the source.

One of the ways Solomon said that people are trying to address the issue of reducing greenhouse gas emissions is to make clear there are tremendous benefits for direct climate-change related effects, known as co-benefits. These include actions like walking or riding bikes instead of driving having a positive effect both on the environment and physical health.

Some of the most important changes need to occur at the individual level, Solomon said, especially since an issue as big as climate change is sometimes hard for people to approach as a relevant, immediate problem. Physicians, she said, play a crucial role in educating people how they can make that individual difference.

“By really making clear to people just on a patient encounter … I think that can be very helpful,” Solomon said. “Those kinds of direct, personal issues can be tied in, as well as that encouragement to exercise and eat well.”

Children, too, can make a big impact, Solomon said, as they realize how climate change affects them and are already advocating for change at a political level.

“We’re seeing that many children are really fully understanding what a tremendous problem this is and that it’s only going to worsen, and they’re really getting involved,” Solomon said.