Last month marked the hottest June in the 174-year global climate record, and 2023 is on track to be among the top five warmest years in history. From extreme heat to flooding, storms and wildfires, intensifying weather patterns are contributing to a climate crisis with health impacts that demand attention and action.
The World Health Organization has warned that climate change is the single biggest health threat facing humanity. Climate-related impacts on air and water quality, disruption to food systems, disaster-caused displacement, and risk for infectious disease present myriad challenges and undermine social determinants for good health. It is often the most vulnerable who are the most severely affected, bearing disproportionate burden while lacking access to quality care.
As an academic medical campus, it is our responsibility to lead the search for solutions. Through forward-looking education and training programs, we are preparing health professionals to answer the call.
Jay Lemery, MD, and Rosemary Rochford, PhD, co-founded a first-of-its-kind Climate & Health Program in the School of Medicine three years ago to educate a new generation of “climate doctors” on urgent crises impacting human health. What started as a physician fellowship program has expanded to include a Diploma in Climate Medicine open to providers of all specialties and delivered by an interdisciplinary faculty team.
“We want to be the home of climate medicine,” said Lemery, who holds the School of Medicine’s inaugural endowed chair in the field. “We aimed to build heavyweight credentials that would position clinicians to be leaders in climate health.”
“We want to be the home of climate medicine.”
- Jay Lemery, MD
The first cohort of 20 participants began the 300-hour diploma program last fall. Courses cover disaster response, environmental justice, healthcare system decarbonization and more.Maddy Keenan, MD, is conducting her pediatric residency at CU Anschutz. “I saw this course as a way to make me a stronger, more educated and substantiated advocate and educator,” she said. “Putting into an environmental context some of the concepts we’re learning reminds you not only of their importance but also the joy in being a part of the movement that helps protect them.”
“A key question is how we develop the next generation of scientists to deal with the health effects of climate.”
- Rosemary Rochford, PhD
Lemery and Rochford co-founded the CU Consortium for Climate Change and Health, which convenes experts from environmental science, medicine, basic science, public health and policy to create tools, inform policies and build a climate-conscious healthcare workforce.
“A key question is how we develop the next generation of scientists to deal with the health effects of climate,” Rochford said. “The educational piece is huge, and it has to be interdisciplinary by nature.”
Students at the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences are exploring the role they can play through a new elective called Human Health and Climate Change.
Tina Brock, EdD, was one of the driving forces behind the course’s creation, in response to student demand and in partnership with Rx for Climate, a global collaborative of pharmacy schools working to advance climate considerations in the field.
“Climate is relevant for all areas of pharmacy and foundational to bettering human health,” Brock said. “Pharmacists are often the first port of call for medication expertise for patients as well as providers. Increasingly, patients and clinicians are asking about the impact of medicines on the environment.”
Pharmacists are often the first health professionals people seek for care and among the most accessible. They can help mitigate negative health outcomes by educating patients on climate adaptation strategies ‒ for example, advising those at risk of respiratory illness to stay indoors when air quality is poor. They can also bring climate questions into drug discovery and development, as well as medication management, packaging and disposal.
First taught last spring, the elective paired a lecture series with an online component that brought pharmacy students together with medical and nursing colleagues from Colorado, Montana and Australia for peer-to-peer learning and cross-cultural exchange.
Students Gabriela Castellano and Liriam Campos Hevia said they wanted to take the elective because, “There are so many layers to health that are not obvious when we usually study drugs and diseases….like climate change and heat, vector ecosystems and the spread of infectious disease.”
Brock said student enthusiasm for the course has been inspiring and that the potential for interprofessional collaboration is high. The opportunity to partner on co-learning activities with Beth Gillespie, MD, who was directing the Climate Medicine elective in the School of Medicine during a similar time period, made this a win-win.
“Let’s be open to the fact that our learners and trainees are very motivated about this,” she said, “and tap into that passion they have for making tomorrow better.”
The Colorado School of Public Health has just launched the first dedicated PhD program specific to climate and human health in the country. The program positions us to lead the field, making advanced training available for those seeking to address the unfolding crisis here in Colorado and around the globe. The first doctoral students begin in fall 2024.
“We were looking to create a niche PhD informed by our talent, expertise and rich community connections as a school and a campus,” said Katherine James, PhD, MSPH, MSCE, who spearheaded the program’s development. “The result is a truly transdisciplinary program focused on turning research into action.”
The program draws on existing curriculum and faculty collaborators in ColoradoSPH and the School of Medicine, and complements climate-related endeavors at CU Anschutz as well as CU Boulder, CU Denver and CSU. Among those collaborators is Katherine Dickinson, PhD, MS, whose work in ColoradoSPH examines environmental inequities and health outcomes.In the Dickinson Lab, students are getting hands-on training through climate-related projects spanning the impacts of oil and gas development, to wildfire mitigation and recovery, and health in neighborhoods disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards.
“There is an urgency to climate and health challenges that clearly highlights the need for a different kind of approach and the inclusion of many voices from the get-go,” Dickinson said. “Climate change is happening now ‒ we have to figure out how to research and do and act all together at the same time.”
Carla Nyquist, MPH, did project work in the Dickinson Lab while completing her degree at ColoradoSPH and joined the lab full-time after graduating last year. One of her projects weighs risks and tradeoffs of prescribed burning for wildfire mitigation in Colorado. Another examines the climate and air quality impacts of the trucking, shipping and manufacturing sector heavily concentrated in North Denver, in collaboration with nonprofit GreenLatinos.
“I’ve always been interested in the human-environment connection and how the health and well-being of human communities is so dependent on that of our natural and built environments, and vice versa,” she said. “ColoradoSPH was a perfect fit for many reasons, most notably its commitment to tackling some of the most pressing problems in Colorado and beyond.”
As we work to address the complex health challenges of our changing climate, we can take inspiration from the dynamic education and training programs underway on this campus.
We can also find tremendous hope in future generations of leaders working to understand the health effects of our climate today so that they may meet those challenges head on tomorrow for the benefit of us all.