Climate change will have devastating consequences for public and individual health unless aggressive, global action is taken now to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the American College of Physicians (ACP) says in a new policy paper published in Annals of Internal Medicine.
“The American College of Physicians urges physicians to help combat climate change by advocating for effective climate change adaptation and mitigation policies, helping to advance a low-carbon healthcare sector, and by educating communities about potential health dangers posed by climate change,” said Wayne J. Riley, MD, MPH, MBA, MACP, president, ACP. “We need to take action now to protect the health of our community’s most vulnerable members — including our children, our seniors, people with chronic illnesses, and the poor — because our climate is already changing and people are already being harmed.”
ACP cites higher rates of respiratory and heat-related illnesses, increased prevalence of diseases passed by insects, water-borne diseases, food and water insecurity and malnutrition, and behavioral health problems as potential health effects of climate change in a press release. The elderly, the sick, and the poor are especially vulnerable, the release notes.
As clinicians, physicians have a role in combating climate change, especially as it relates to human health, ACP says. ACP calls on the healthcare sector to implement environmentally sustainable and energy efficient practices and prepare for the impacts of climate change to ensure continued operations during periods of elevated patient demand. The healthcare sector is ranked second-highest in energy use, after the food industry, spending about $9 billion annually on energy costs.
Healthcare system mitigation focus areas include transportation, energy conservation/efficiency, alternative energy generation, green building design, waste disposal and management, reducing food waste, and water conservation.
“Office-based physicians and their staffs can also play a role by taking action to achieve energy and water efficiency, using renewable energy, expanding recycling programs, and using low-carbon or zero-carbon transportation,” Dr. Riley said.
ACP encourages physicians to become educated about climate change, its effect on human health, and how to respond to future challenges. ACP recommends that medical schools and continuing medical education providers incorporate climate change-related coursework into curricula.
“ACP has 18 international chapters that span the globe,” said Dr. Riley. “This paper was written not only to support advocacy for changes by the U.S. government to mitigate climate change, but to provide our international chapters and internal medicine colleagues with policies and analysis that they can use to advocate with their own governments, colleagues, and the public, and for them to advocate for changes to reduce their own health systems impact.”
The paper was developed by ACP’s Health and Public Policy Committee, which is charged with addressing issues that affect the healthcare of the U.S. The committee reviewed available studies, reports, and surveys on climate change and its relation to human health. The recommendations are based on reviewed literature and input from ACP’s Board of Governors, Board of Regents, additional ACP councils, and nonmember experts in the field.
The American College of Physicians is the largest medical specialty organization and the second-largest physician group in the United States. ACP members include 143,000 internal medicine physicians (internists), related subspecialists, and medical students. Internal medicine physicians are specialists who apply scientific knowledge and clinical expertise to the diagnosis, treatment, and compassionate care of adults across the spectrum from health to complex illness, the release notes.