Climate change is not just a bone of contention for politicians and scientists but an issue that the medical community needs to address, according to a majority of Black physicians who responded to a recent survey.
The National Medical Association, an organization of African-American physicians, conducted a survey of its membership in conjunction with George Mason University aimed at assessing doctors’ experiences with the intersections of climate change and health and their thoughts about how to address this issue.
Of the physicians responding to the survey, nearly nine out of 10 (88 percent) said climate change impacts patient care, and nearly two-thirds (61 percent) said environmental changes have had moderately-to-profoundly adverse effects on their own patients, particularly the poor, the elderly and those with chronic conditions.
“The recently released National Climate Assessment concluded that climate change is already harming the health of many Americans, and people in some communities are particularly vulnerable to the health effects of climate change,” Dr. Mark Mitchell, one of the lead investigators in the study, said in a statement. “Our survey findings show clearly that African-American physicians are seeing the harmful health effects of climate change among their patients.”
Most commonly, physicians observed injuries from extreme weather events, such as floods, fires, and major snow storms (88 percent) among their patients, followed by increases in the severity of chronic illnesses due to air pollution (87 percent), increased allergic symptoms (80 percent), and heat related effects (75 percent).
According to the World Health Organization, global warming caused more than 140,000 excess deaths annually between the 1970s and 2004. Climate change is expected to wield a worldwide toll of $2 billion to $4 billion per year in added health costs by 2030.
An overwhelming number of respondents to the association’s study said the medical community—both individuals and medical organizations—bore some responsibility for educating and advocating about the health effects of climate change.
Three-quarters of National Medical Association physicians said they had a responsibility to make their patients (75 percent) and the public (71 percent) aware of the health impacts of climate change. Eight of 10 said medical education should address climate change and its associated health impacts and that physicians should encourage their offices, clinics, or hospitals to be more sustainable. And 76 percent said medical societies should have a significant advocacy role in advancing solutions to the ill effects of climate change.
The association conducted its inquiry in March and May, and had a response rate of 30 percent. Dr. Mona Sarfaty, another lead investigator on the research project, said the response rate was high for a survey of physicians, and that the results would likely be the same even with a higher response rate.
“Even in the unlikely event that all of the non-respondents to our survey were to say they are not seeing climate impacts among their patients, what we found clearly indicates that the health of many patients of African American physicians is already being harmed by climate change,” she said.