Because climate change is an environmental and economic and public health issue, we need to leverage voices and active participation from all parts of our community.The healthcare community in particular is an important champion and ally in the fight against climate change. Over 100 other major health organizations have called climate change a health emergency. And ecoAmerica’s latest survey finds “health” at the top of the list of American’s motivations for climate solutions. Protecting health ranks even higher than jobs.
We need healthcare leaders who advance the climate change conversation by having ongoing dialogue with patients about how this issue is affecting their individual health. One such leader is Dr. Lewandowski, a pediatrician at the Group Health Cooperative of South Central Wisconsin. Since 2019 Dr. Lewandowski has integrated climate counseling into his well-child check-ups, which he sees as an important component of a child and family’s overall well-being.
“I started talking about climate change and children's health because my job is to counsel parents about anything that is hurting their child and what we can do about it. Furthermore, it was recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics [in 2015]. Climate and health research shows that climate change is disproportionately hurting children due to differences in how their bodies work and due to their reliance on a functioning society - which is threatened by climate harms like extreme heat, extreme weather, food insecurity, and others.”
During check-ups Dr. Lewandowski uses a simple script to connect with parents about how climate might affect their families and children. Acknowledging that in 2019 the American Academy of Pediatrics declared climate change a health emergency, he emphasizes that climate change disproportionately hurts children and that their family can be part of the solution. Although no one family can solve the climate crisis, everyone can help play a role, from saving energy to supporting clean energy initiatives. Follow-up visits revisit the topic to ask if parents have any additional questions.
This communication is important because despite the rising understanding of climate risks to health, and the high level of trust in physicians as sources of information, physicians rarely educate families on this topic. And because this communication is coming from a trusted source, it is even more valuable.
Dr. Lewandowski finds that patients are seeing value from this type of engagement. Using follow-up surveys to ask how patients felt about receiving climate counseling, the majority were appreciative and showed signs of knowledge gain (88% said they learned more about how climate change is hurting people) and demonstrated an increased likelihood to support clean energy (91%) or decrease their carbon footprint (89%). None of the 138 survey participants expressed dissatisfaction with the counseling. What’s more, these responses were similar across political identities, from liberal to conservative. From this research, we can see how valuable patient/doctor conversations about climate change can be.
We all have a unique role to play in the climate change crisis. “Healthcare systems, hospitals, clinics, providers, and healthcare staff all need to be involved in climate conversations because climate change solutions are health solutions,” says Dr. Lewandowski.
Melanie is a Climate Specialist within the Dane County’s Office of Energy and Climate Change.n her role as Climate Specialist she is implementing the recommendations set forth in the Climate Action Plan. Prior to joining Dane County Melanie was in California where she focused her efforts on land and water conservation statewide through grants and policymaking.
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