Healthy Planet, Healthy Patients

December 14, 2020

AMSA’s Environmental Health Action Committee recently hosted an AMSA Activism Update where we learned how the health of our planets and patients are interconnected. Read the summary and watch the video below!


The quality of our health depends less on the quality of our health care system than on the environment we live in. “You can’t have a healthy population on a sick planet. Our health absolutely depends on environmental conditions, on the health of functioning ecosystems that are providing food and fresh water,” said Dr. Jonathan Patz, director of the Global Health Institute, University of Wisconsin-Madison, during a recent AMSA Activism Update.

Patz and co-panelist Dr. Ashley McClure MD, FACP, co-founder of Climate Health Now, talked about why health care professionals should advocate for environmental health policies and shared thought on how to best get involved.


The Urgency Is Real

Patz, who served as a lead author for the UN-IPCC, the organization that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore, has been studying the effect of climate change on health for decades. In fact, as a medical student, he led the environmental section of AMSA. “I’ve always been interested in the upstream determinants of health, and promoting health through reducing exposures to risk factors,” he said.

Rising temperatures, rising sea levels, air pollution and other environmental impacts clearly lead to bad health outcomes. The COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect example. “I can bookend COVID with environmental factors. On the front end is disruption of ecosystems and spillover from one species to another. On the back end, air pollution leads to an eight percent risk of dying from COVID after controlling from the compounding,” he says. “COVID-19 is such a wake-up call for the world. If you mess with Mother Nature, you’re going to have a deadly pathogen in your living room.”


What Can Physicians Do?

As part of their duty to save lives, physicians have an obligation to advocate for environmental health policies, said McClure. But how can doctors and other health care professionals make the most difference?

In general, McClure suggested that the medical community address policymakers directly. “I think the greatest yield of our powerful voice is not in direct patient care counseling about climate change,” she said. “The patient can’t do anything about it.” For example, if a patient lives in a food desert, moving is not often a realistic treatment option. Instead, she says, “the right venue is doctors organizing and talking to policymakers … the place to focus is in collective policy solutions.”

As one example, McClure’s organization is part of a coalition of health groups that are “calling on health insurers in the U.S. to divest their investments from fossil fuels because there’s a major conflict of interest.” In other words, health insurers shouldn’t make money by investing in companies that actively make communities sick.

Regardless of you get involved, she told the audience not to squander its power. “Nurses and physicians have a climate superpower, which is trust, and no other profession can bring that trust to the discussion,” she said. “We have to leverage that trust to the greater good, which climate solutions will do.”

Patz agreed: “We are doctors that care about protecting people. We don’t have a vested interest except that we care about the population and our patients. It’s a health issue that’s important to communicate.”


Watch the recorded video for the panelists’ entire unedited conversation.