In the face of the escalating climate emergency, the call for comprehensive climate education is reaching unexpected corners, including the esteemed halls of Harvard Medical School. As communities grapple with the far-reaching impacts of climate change, the need for a holistic understanding of this crisis has prompted Harvard Medical School to pioneer a groundbreaking curriculum, weaving climate awareness into every facet of medical education.

Harvard’s Distinct Approach

Harvard Medical School, a pinnacle of medical education, recently made history by voting to integrate a climate curriculum theme across all four years of instruction. This move, led by dedicated students like Madeleine Kline and supported by instructors such as Gaurab Basu, aims to draw attention and inspire other medical institutions to follow suit.

Five Pillars of Knowledge

The curriculum focuses on five key areas to create a robust foundation:

1. Pathophysiological Mechanisms: Understanding how climate change, air pollution, and ecological degradation impact human health.

2. Clinical Application: Applying this knowledge to the clinical care of patients, including prevention, diagnosis, and risk-reduction counseling.

3. Addressing Inequities: Analyzing historical and structural causes of climate change and its role in creating and exacerbating health inequities.

4. Healthcare System Contribution: Describing how the healthcare system contributes to climate change, exploring vulnerabilities, and identifying areas for improvement.

5. Physician’s Role in Solutions: Exploring the role of physicians and healthcare in climate solutions.

Curriculum in Action: A Deeper Dive

In a conversation with Kline and Basu, the architects of this innovative curriculum, we delved into the intricacies of the program and discovered some of the unexpected overlaps covered.

Impactful Overlaps: Beyond the Obvious

Kline highlights some intriguing overlaps, including the effects of extreme heat, severe weather, and air pollution. However, she emphasizes less intuitive connections such as changes in vector ecology, altering the dynamics of diseases carried by mosquitoes and ticks. Other nuanced impacts include shifts in allergy seasons, water quality, and the rise of infections during flooding or sea-level rise.

The curriculum’s adaptability allows students to explore these interconnected issues in-depth. For instance, when learning about dialysis, a treatment for kidney failure, students also delve into the challenges posed by natural disasters, which can disrupt the regularity of this crucial medical intervention. Similarly, approaches to diagnosis are expanded to include the impact of climate change on the prevalence and distribution of diseases, reshaping the landscape of healthcare.

Learning from Others

In developing this curriculum, Harvard looked to networks like Medical Students for a Sustainable Future and resources such as Climate Health Ed. These collaborative efforts aim to create universally applicable resources for integrating climate education into medical school curricula nationwide.

Medical Students for a Sustainable Future stands as a model, actively working on curricular arms to infuse climate education across medical schools. Independent medical schools are also undertaking their own integrations, showcasing a collective effort within the medical community to prioritize climate literacy. Resources like Climate Health Ed, a collaboration between institutions such as Columbia, Boston hospitals, UCSF, and Emory, further contribute to the development of tools that can be universally adopted for comprehensive climate education.

Challenges and Opportunities

While the challenge lies in an already-packed curriculum, Kline notes the fortunate absence of resistance. Medical students and faculty at Harvard acknowledge the importance of climate education, paving the way for strategic integration without overwhelming existing coursework.

Balancing a curriculum laden with essential medical sciences and the increasing pressure to address various social issues requires a strategic approach. The challenge is not only to integrate a climate lens but to do so without adding undue stress to an already demanding curriculum. The fortunate alignment of student and faculty perspectives has been instrumental in navigating this challenge, highlighting a shared recognition of the urgency and importance of climate education.

Healthcare and Climate Crisis

An integral aspect of the curriculum addresses the healthcare system’s significant contribution to the climate crisis, responsible for approximately 8.5% of national carbon emissions. Kline emphasizes the importance of educating future physicians about emissions and waste reduction within the healthcare system, calling for a shift toward cleaner energy and reduced waste in hospitals.

Understanding the healthcare system’s role in climate change unveils staggering statistics, such as the healthcare sector contributing to a substantial portion of national carbon emissions. This revelation prompts critical reflections on the paradox of an industry dedicated to healing also being a significant contributor to environmental degradation. The need for physicians to advocate for sustainable practices within the healthcare system becomes increasingly apparent, with the potential to drive positive change both in patient care and in reducing the industry’s environmental impact.

Navigating a Changing Planet

Basu envisions a dynamic approach to clinical care, urging physicians to scrutinize public health data and adapt to evolving patterns influenced by climate change. As an example, he suggests tailoring patient care based on climate-related risks, such as calling prenatal patients on dangerously hot days to ensure their safety.

The intersection of climate education and clinical care is a vital component of Harvard’s innovative curriculum. Beyond theoretical knowledge, the curriculum encourages a proactive and dynamic approach to healthcare, where physicians are not only reactive to climate-related health risks but also actively engage in preventative measures. This shift in mindset involves recognizing the changing patterns of diseases, such as increased risks of heart attacks and stroke on hotter days, and adapting clinical practices accordingly.

Bridging Health and Advocacy

For Kline and Basu, the intersection of healthcare and climate advocacy is driven by a shared commitment to human well-being. Kline sees healthcare as a fundamental human right threatened by the changing climate, affecting people disproportionately. Basu, driven by a profound desire to care for people, recognizes the interconnectedness of caring for the planet and its inhabitants.

The narratives of individuals impacted by climate change serve as powerful motivators for change within the healthcare system. Kline’s passion stems from the belief that healthcare is a fundamental human right that intersects with every other threat to human health. The disproportionate impact of climate change on vulnerable populations further emphasizes the urgency of integrating climate education into medical curricula.

Basu’s journey reflects a commitment to a world where taking care of people extends beyond individual patient care to encompass the planet as a whole. Recognizing the interconnectedness of human health and planetary health, he emphasizes the moral challenge of ensuring that healthcare professionals actively contribute to positive environmental change.

A Prescription for Change

Harvard Medical School’s pioneering climate curriculum stands as a testament to the evolving role of medical education in addressing global challenges. As future physicians are equipped with the knowledge and tools to navigate a changing climate, the hope is that this initiative will inspire other institutions to follow suit, creating a network of healthcare professionals committed to healing not just individuals but the planet itself.