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#APaperADay: It’s Time for Medical Schools to Introduce Climate Change Into Their Curricula

This is my first attempt to share a short summary of a paper that I’ve read as part of my #APaperADay project, where I try to put aside the last 30-60 minutes of every day for reading and summarising an article. Obviously, I’m not going to be able to finish an article a day so these won’t be daily posts.

Also, paper selection is likely to be arbitrary. This isn’t an attempt to find “the best” or “most interesting” articles. It’s probably just me going through my reading list and choosing something based on how much time I have left in the day.

I’m going to try and make these summaries short and may also start adding my own commentary within the main text as part of an attempt to engage more deeply with the subject. Please don’t assume that my summaries are 1) accurate representations of the actual content, 2) substitutes for reading the original, 3) appropriate sources of knowledge in their own right.


Citation: Wellbery, C., Sheffield, P., Timmireddy, K., Sarfaty, M., Teherani, A., & Fallar, R. (2018). It’s Time for Medical Schools to Introduce Climate Change Into Their Curricula. Academic Medicine, 93(12), 1774–1777. https://doi.org/10.1097/ACM.0000000000002368

This is a position piece that begins by describing the impact of human beings on the planet (the Anthropocene).

The effects of climate change will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable populations (the very old and very young, those who are sick, and whose who are poor).

Current efforts in HPE policy have been directed towards preparing health professionals to help address the effects of climate change. However, medical school curricula have not made much headway in updating their curricula to explicitly include this new content.

Rationale for including climate change in medical education

  1. Today’s generation of HP students are those who have a large stake in developing a strategic response.
  2. The health effects of climate change and getting worse and HP will need to be adequately prepared to meet with challenge.
  3. It is everyone’s responsibility to drive efforts at reducing the environmental footprint of healthcare, which is a non-trivial contributor to global warming.
  4. Climate change will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable populations, who HP are obliged to help.
  5. The inclusion of climate change will facilitate the development of thinking skills that are (hopefully) transferable to other aspects of the curriculum.

Current curricular interventions

There needs to be a rethinking of the division between public and individual health. Climate change will increasingly affect the environment, which will increasingly affect people. These complex interactions among complex variables will affect political, social, scientific, and economic domains, all of which are currently beyond the scope of medical education.

Climate change as a topic of discussion can be relatively easily integrated into medical curricula, alongside already existing conditions. For example, a discussion on asthma could include the negative effect of global warming on this particular condition. In other words, climate change need not be included as a separate module/subject/topic but could be integrated with the current curriculum.

“Climate-relevant examples and the overarching macrocosmic mechanisms linking them to individual disease processes could broaden discussions of such topics as cardiovascular health (related to changing air quality), sexually transmitted infections (related to displaced populations), and mental health disorders (related both to displaced populations and also to extreme weather).”

The article finishes with a few examples of how some medical schools have incorporated climate change into their curricula. It seems likely that this is something that will need to happen over time i.e. programmes can’t simply dump a load of “global warming/climate change” content into the curriculum overnight.

Comment: This is a short paper that might be interesting for someone who’d like to know why climate change should be a topic of interest in health professions education. Even if this is something that you’re only passingly familiar with, you’re probably not going to get much from it. But it may be useful to pass on to someone who thinks that climate change isn’t relevant in a health professions curriculum.


By Michael Rowe

I'm a lecturer in the Department of Physiotherapy at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa. I'm interested in technology, education and healthcare and look for places where these things meet.

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