UW News

September 5, 2023

UW, Stanford launch resource to help health care professionals respond to climate concerns 

UW News

Many of the case studies in Medicine for a Changing Planet are set in communities traditionally excluded from accumulating wealth, such as rural Rwanda, pictured here. Credit: ©2009CIAT/NeilPalmer

Changes to our environment are creating new challenges: emerging disease patterns, threats to mental health, malnutrition and unpredictable natural disasters. These developments are unprecedented. Their impacts are felt across the world, most intensely in communities traditionally excluded from accumulating wealth.  

What health professionals see in hospitals and clinics is shifting, requiring new approaches to diagnosis, treatment and advocacy.  

To address this growing need, the University of Washington’s Center for One Health Research and the Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health are launching Medicine for a Changing Planet, a collection of clinical case studies supporting health professionals in providing more effective care for patients living with climate change.  

These case studies, collated from clinical encounters around the world, support health professionals in recognizing and treating a variety of health-related conditions that can be traced to environmental stressors. Topics include infectious diseases, non-communicable diseases, malnutrition, heat stress, physical trauma and mental health concerns.  

We want the skills emphasized in the Medicine for a Changing Planet case studies to empower health care providers to play a more active role in the response to global environmental change,” said Peter Rabinowitz, a UW professor of environmental and occupational health sciences who co-led the development of these case studies. “We encourage health professionals to focus on their role as disease detectives, identifying sentinel cases of environmentally induced disease, and steps that they could take to manage such cases, both in and beyond the clinic.” 

Rabinowitz is also a physician in UW Medicine’s Infectious Diseases and Tropical Medicine Clinic and director of the UW Center for One Health Research. 

Among other things, the cases call for an expanded approach to taking a patient’s medical history. Clinicians already are trained to look out for social determinants of health, considering a patient’s occupation, lifestyle and other key factors. Now, in a rapidly changing environment, clinicians must also go a step further. The cases encourage health professionals to consider how environmental stressors, such as extreme heat, wildfires, food access and widespread pollution may impact a patient’s health.  

Each case includes a call to action, describing ways in which clinicians can take action to advance global health. Cases encourage health professionals to work with public health authorities and other key stakeholders, and to consider ways to leverage their roles as trusted voices of authority to advance change in response to a planetary crisis.  

This includes action in the clinic, within local communities, and at a larger societal level — advancing sustainability, developing stakeholder networks, advocating for policy changes and galvanizing grassroots efforts. 

The cases also prompt health professionals to consider how to help patients protect themselves from additional health consequences. This can mean identifying potential environmental stressors and planning steps to reduce exposure. 

“Listening closely to one’s patients to understand the many factors impacting their health has always been a physician’s core responsibility,” said Dr. Michele Barry, Shenson Professor and Director of the Center for Innovation in Global Health at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, and co-lead of this project. “This is even more important now, in a time when the human-altered environment is placing unprecedented pressures on our health and well-being.” 

This project deepens the UW’s longstanding commitment to address the world’s most pressing challenges to health and well-being. The Population Health Initiative unites the entire UW community in that mission by fostering a collaborative approach to improving human health, environmental resilience, and social and economic equity.

Michael Yost, chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, said Rabinowitz is a living example of that mission.  

“Since launching the Center for One Health Research at the UW, Dr. Rabinowitz has established a rich global network of researchers and clinicians investigating emerging environmental challenges and diseases,” Yost said. “His role in assembling this new material demonstrates the UW’s commitment to improving population health around the world.”  

Medicine for a Changing World’s core partners include the Global Consortium of Climate and Health Education and their new collection of Climate Resources for Health Professionals, as well as the Planetary Health Alliance’s Clinicians for Planetary Health initiative. 

Adapted from a press release by Stanford University. 

For more information, reach Rabinowitz by contacting Vickie Ramirez: ramirezv@uw.edu