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It’s Time for Medical Schools to Introduce Climate Change Into Their Curricula

Wellbery, Caroline MD, PhD; Sheffield, Perry MD, MPH; Timmireddy, Kavya; Sarfaty, Mona MD, MPH; Teherani, Arianne PhD; Fallar, Robert PhD

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doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000002368
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Global environmental changes driven by human activities are altering natural processes to such an extent that the present era has been defined as a new geologic age known as the Anthropocene.1 The loss of biodiversity, the spread of toxins and pollutants, and planetary warming due to greenhouse gas emissions cannot be fully understood without also accounting for their profound impact on human health.2 Direct exposure to extreme temperatures (particularly extreme heat), severe weather, and heavy precipitation are leading to premature mortality and injury,3 especially in vulnerable populations, including young children, the elderly, people with lower incomes, and those who are already dealing with the burden of chronic disease, health inequities, and cultural and economic barriers such as lack of access to air conditioning.4 Additionally, climate change has many indirect burdensome effects on food and water security, air quality, and infectious disease distribution. All these factors further exacerbate inequalities, vulnerabilities, and social disruptions that adversely affect health.5–7 The World Health Organization8 has predicted that by 2030 there will be an estimated 250,000 additional deaths per year attributable to climate change, which is likely conservative, as currently 23% of all deaths globally are the result of environmental factors that, although multifactorial, are subject to the influence of climate change, which could drive the estimated number of additional deaths even higher.

Many countries, intergovernmental organizations, health associations, and some health professions schools have recognized the importance of preparing physicians to address the health impacts of climate change and have made commitments toward that worthy goal. In 2007, The Lancet, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, created a commission on health and climate change with a goal of publishing a triennial report on climate change and health. These reports9 track scientific progress while disseminating public policy information and medical perspectives on the health effects of climate change. In 2008, the American Medical Association adopted an organizational policy to support the training of physicians on the health effects of climate change and actively encouraged physicians to get involved.10 In 2015, the United Nations Paris Agreement to combat climate change11 inspired the Health Educator’s Climate Commitment—a pledge to ensure that the next generation of health professionals is prepared to effectively address the health impacts of climate change. The deans from 118 health professions schools across 15 countries committed their schools to such training.12

Despite these efforts, medical school curricula have not kept pace with environmental changes. Although no reliable mechanism exists for estimating the prevalence of curricular content addressing the health effects of climate change, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) supports a database in its Curriculum Inventory (CI) that aggregates institution-reported curricular activity and allows queries through specific search terms. We queried the CI database with the assistance of AAMC staff using key terms related to climate change, environment, climate change actions/solutions, and meteorology. The CI database search indicated that schools do not report any explicit inclusion of climate change education in their curriculum.13 This finding is unsurprising but does reinforce the necessity for articulating the reasons why climate change should be at the forefront of our curricular efforts. Here, we aim to describe the rationale for including climate change in medical education and illuminate some potential pathways for doing so. Our arguments are all the more urgent as current U.S. policy is aimed at supporting fossil fuel extraction and deregulation of carbon emissions, all of which will accelerate the multiple threats to global health and survival despite increasing public acceptance of the human contributions to climate change.

The Rationale for Climate Change in Medical Education

First, today’s medical students and residents belong to a generation that has an increasingly large stake in developing a strategic response to the many deleterious impacts of climate change. Of the 18 hottest years on record worldwide since record keeping began in 1880, 17 have occurred since the year 2000.14 It is becoming increasingly clear that every sector needs to do its part to address climate change. As Jim Yong Kim,15 president of the World Bank, stated in a 2015 address at Georgetown University, “Just about everything we do has to be focused on tackling climate change, both in terms of mitigation and adaptation.”

Second, the scope of the health effects of climate change is unprecedented. New data on the cardiovascular and pulmonary impacts of air pollution are of particular concern because climate change potentiates the damage caused by air pollution while, conversely, air pollution accelerates climate change.16,17 According to a recent study, air pollution was implicated in 6.5 million deaths in 2015.18 The magnitude of such impacts presents, and will present, substantial challenges and opportunities for health care professionals.19 In addition, temperature rise and greater frequency of extreme heat events will place a significant health burden on the global population. Currently, about a third of the world’s population are exposed to a lethal combination of heat and humidity conditions for at least 20 days per year, and projections indicate that the proportion of the world’s population with such exposure will increase to 48% to 74% by the end of this century.20 In the United States, populations most vulnerable to detrimental effects of heat include young children, the elderly, patients with comorbid conditions, socially and linguistically isolated groups, and those without air conditioning.5

Third, physicians, nurses, and administrators all bear some responsibility for spearheading efforts to reduce health care’s environmental footprint. The U.S. health care sector itself contributes to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions at an estimated 9% to 10% per year.21 If the U.S. health care system were a country, it would rank 13th in the world for greenhouse gas emissions.22 Reduced medical waste; energy conservation; and locally sourced, plant-based diets are potential areas where health care professionals can participate in mitigation processes and can support health care centers to engage with their communities in a collaborative effort to promote a healthier local environment.23

Fourth, health care systems oversee medical care of large segments of vulnerable populations experiencing the health impacts of climate change. As previously mentioned, certain groups such as young children, pregnant women, patients with chronic pulmonary conditions, and the elderly are amongst the most vulnerable.5

Last, inclusion of climate change curricula into undergraduate medical education fosters necessary critical thinking, participation in global health and sustainability initiatives, multidisciplinary perspectives, and public health literacy—all essential physician skills in a rapidly changing environment.24

These reasons support the need to invite medical students and residents to reflect on their role and responsibility in combating the health effects of climate change, both with respect to the health care sector they are part of and the patients they serve. At the same time, these reasons provide the foundation for curricular interventions—discussed below—that build on current teaching on the determinants of health.

Current Curricular Interventions

The global, interdependent, and complex nature of climate change necessitates a rethinking of traditional divisions between public and individual health. The prolongation of the allergy season; increased intensity of allergens; and potentiation of lung irritants through the interaction of heat, sunlight, and fossil fuel combustion are just a few of the macrocosmic effects that manifest as symptoms in the microcosm of individual patient care. Adapting to this complexity, which entails many political, social, scientific, and economic factors that are beyond the scope of medical education, is an important challenge. Consideration should also be given to the multidecade efforts to date of incorporating environmental health more broadly into medical curricula.25 Here, we briefly present the current curricular state of climate change in medical education and provide examples of some relevant educational interventions.

Fortunately, many health topic areas already exist in medical school curricula where climate change education can be incorporated into the discussion simply by broadening the horizon within which these topics are taught. The querying of the AAMC’s database described above did reveal educational activities that touched on topics of concern to climate change education, including basic disease entities such as asthma and Lyme disease. Although we do not know whether the health topics identified in the database were taught making any explicit connection to climate change, their ubiquity in the medical curriculum indicates that there is a potential base for integrating climate and health topics into existing medical school curricula. Climate-relevant examples and the overarching macrocosmic mechanisms linking them to individual disease processes could broaden discussions of such topics as cardiovascular health (related to changing air quality), sexually transmitted infections (related to displaced populations), and mental health disorders (related both to displaced populations and also to extreme weather). To fully integrate the health topics, the underlying concepts, and needed clinical and system-wide translations, content could be included across the scope of training and into continuing education and faculty development (see Table 1).

Table 1
Table 1:
Practical Tips for Advancing a Climate Change and Health Curriculum in Medical Schools

For example, at Georgetown University School of Medicine, third-year medical students review a series of modules focusing on asthma in their family medicine clerkship. These include a short integrated climate change module, where students investigate the connection between air pollution and climate change, identify specific lung irritants, look up current air quality data, and apply recommendations to advise a patient with asthma. By locating curricular elements focusing on such entities as heat injuries, asthma, allergies, infectious diseases, and cardiovascular health, thematically relevant materials on environment and sustainability can be integrated without adding substantially to time constraints in an already-overpacked curriculum. Because repetition and longitudinal emphasis are likely needed to support such teaching, Georgetown also recently introduced a foundational required workshop for all first-year students linking environmental health, climate change, air pollution, and respiratory disease. Ideally, the many interconnected threads introduced in this workshop can be woven into a wide array of course materials in the future, with a reach well beyond that of the third-year clerkship module just described.26

In another example, at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, first-year students receive a lecture followed by elective small-group discussions, all focused on climate change and other global environmental changes, as part of a global health module.27 However, given the myriad disease-relevant interconnections and input from some Sinai medical students requesting that more climate and health linkages be woven throughout curricular course work, an expanded initiative aims for cross-curricular infusion through the introduction of vignettes into multiple lectures across multiple courses in the preclinical curriculum. Ultimately, validation through development and implementation of expected competencies will be needed to support these curricular innovations.26

What Must Be Done

Climate change will increasingly be a determinant of health and must be included in medical schools’ curricula so that students understand the role of the changing environment as a risk factor and the part it plays in the pathophysiology of disease. Including climate change will also help students see themselves as self-efficacious actors in this global challenge that is unfolding. By incorporating climate and health into their curricula, medical schools will not only prepare their students for the inevitable reality of illness and life circumstances affected by climate change but will also add to and solidify the crucial skills needed by the modern-day physician to address the growing health burdens of noncommunicable disease, an aging population, systemic socioeconomic disadvantage, and the structural changes to the upstream determinants of health. Integrated curricular changes and advocacy training will better equip and inspire students as they embark on their future careers.


For their assistance with search term selection, running of reports, and general counsel, the authors would like to thank (1) Terri Cameron, MA, Walter Fitz-William, MPP, and Sherese Johnson, MPH, PMP, all staff members at the Association of American Medical Colleges; (2) Jonathan Buonocore, ScD, from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; (3) Rose H. Goldman, MD, MPH, from Harvard University Medical School and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; (4) Catherine Sonquist Forest, MD, from Stanford University School of Medicine; (5) Tanya Kahn, from the American Medical Students Association and Northeast Ohio Medical University; (6) Jay Lemery, MD, from the University of Colorado School of Medicine; and (7) Rebecca Shaw, MD, from Des Moines University–Iowa Health Sciences University.


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