Ours is an age of unprecedented levels of environmental alteration and biodiversity loss. Beyond the exposure to environmental hazards, conditions such as environmental degradation, biotic impoverishment, climate change, and the loss of ecosystem services create important health threats by changing the ecology of many pathogens and increasing the incidence and/or severity of certain noncommunicable conditions. They also threaten health in the future by weakening the Earth’s life support systems.
Although physicians remain one of the most often accessed and most trusted sources of information about the environment, there is currently little emphasis on educating medical professionals about these environmental issues. This lack of training reduces the ability of most physicians to be efficient science–public interfaces and makes them ineffective at contributing to address the fundamental causes of environmental problems or participate in substantive environmental policy discussions. This is an important challenge facing medical education today.
To turn medical students into effective physician–citizens, an already-overwhelmed medical school curriculum must make way for a thoughtful exploration of environmental stressors and their impacts on human health. The overarching question before medical educators is how to develop the competencies, standards, and curricula for this educational endeavor. To this end, the authors highlight some of the critical linkages between health and the environment and suggest a subset of key practical issues that need to be addressed in order to create environmental education standards for the physician of the future.