First-of-its-kind program trains ‘climate doctors’

As record heat, wildfires and flooding become increasingly common in Colorado and beyond, the University of Colorado is training a new generation of what it calls “climate doctors.” The University’s Climate & Health Program prepares physicians to treat the health impacts of climate change in individual patients, while also advocating for systemic policy change.

The program seeks to address what it sees as missing in the nation’s current response to climate change. “As clinicians, we’re not making health policy for thousands of people. We’re taking care of individual patients, and we need a seat at the table,” Jay Lemery, physician and director of the Climate & Health program, said in a video about the program.

Lemery and his colleagues ask physicians to combine the disciplines of public health, energy policy, politics and medicine not only in their everyday practice, but also in advocating for “climate-resilient policies.” For example, physicians in the group are calling on executives and leaders to reduce or phase out the health care sector’s dependence on fossil fuels. Health care settings, including hospitals, are intensive users of energy, and are currently responsible for 8.5 percent of the carbon emissions in the United States, according to a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine. Dr. Caitlin Rublee, director of graduate medical education at the Climate and Health Program and an assistant professor of Emergency Medicine at the University of Colorado, says  pollution just from health-sector tied emissions is indirectly responsible for as many as 100,000 deaths. 

She says new standards can improve patient care delivery and quality as well as reduce harmful pollution that makes people sick in the first place. 

In an interview with Sheena Williams of the Global Health Reporting Center, she also urged individual patients to advocate for climate-forward policy changes.

“You can be a huge part of informing your doctors, your policymakers,” said Rublee. “Send them an email saying we really need to address climate change as a health emergency and opportunity. Not just for some, but for all.”

“Vitals” explores the effects of extreme heat on the human body

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