Code Red: Educating PAs about Climate Health
By: Associate Program Director at the Emory University School of Medicine PA program Alexander Kendall, MS, PA-C
Physician assistant education must recognize the climate crisis as a determinant of health. As medical educators, this is an opportunity for us to unify our knowledge base amongst our workforce, contextualize the climate as perpetuating health disparities and inequity, advocate for health equity for our patients, and take advantage of this crisis to build truly interprofessional partnerships when creating community and climate health solutions.
Even in a rapidly heating world, many practicing PAs are unaware of the connection between climate and health and even the basic opportunities to safeguard the wellbeing of their patients against these challenges. As educators teaching medicine, we have a clear opportunity to build a common knowledge base about environmental and climate-driven health topics that impact our patients and communities. These include large-scale emergency management of climate-driven extreme weather events, heat illnesses, pollen count, or rising regional vector-borne diseases, as well as the more insidious and compound effects on cardiopulmonary health, obstetric risks, prenatal development, and mental health.
Global warming also exacerbates environmental health issues common to marginalized and impoverished communities in America. PA educators can use climate-focused discussions as another important vehicle to contextualize patient’s health challenges outside of the healthcare office. Historically redlined urban zones, with known poor employment opportunities, limited transportation, and lack of access to healthcare also are haunted by the ever-increasing heat island effect, compounding already high airborne particulate concentrations in PM2.5 and ozone. Research shows that these hot urban landscapes disproportionately impact the fragile lungs of children and adults with obstructive pulmonary diseases and worsen heart disease and neurologic outcomes, resulting in higher ER visits, medical debt, and inequitable lifelong health burdens. Understanding these stacked social and environmental challenges not only teaches about the real world our students will step into, but also leads to opportunities to better educate our communities about ways to protect their health in a hotter world.
Lastly, educating PA learners about environmental and climate justice issues serves as a platform to birth community, state, and national advocates who can reshape our public health systems through leadership and interprofessional partnerships. Academic and healthcare departments can integrate these issues into collaborative initiatives to build community solutions, nourish interprofessional culture, and most importantly, innovate solutions to protect the health of our patients, wherever PAs practice.
PA programs have a responsibility to teach about these consequential aspects of health impacts of climate in their curricula to meet the demand of the interest, passion, and fury over the environmental challenges baked into our future. As trusted messengers for health and safety, PAs can truly make a difference in safeguarding individual, family, and community health in a hotter world.
To continue the conversation, crowdsource curricula, and build a diverse climate educator community, please join the PAEA Professional Learning Community Climate and Environmental Justice discussion board.
To learn more about opportunities for PAs and other professionals to advocate for climate health in Georgia, please go to Georgia Clinicians for Climate Action at www.georgiaclimatehealth.org