Why medical schools are incorporating climate change into their curricula
Looking at a report card, you sometimes notice an A (Emory School of Medicine; Minnesota School of Nursing) and an A- (Keele University School of Medicine in England; UC Berkeley). But C and D are more common. Clearly, we still have a long way to go before every healthcare worker is climate trained.
One of the problems with a wider rollout is that the curricula are already packed to prepare students for the licensing exams. “I often hear people say that the curriculum is so full that we can’t teach anything else,” Potter explains. But she notes that’s a weak argument, especially considering how quickly programs were able to change when COVID hit. “If there’s a will, there’s a way,” she says.
Most medical schools update their curricula every few years, and since climate affects all aspects of health, these topics can be integrated into existing lessons fairly easily. Complete overhaul is not required. “The point of our proposed intervention was not to add significant time to the curriculum, but to apply a climate lens to what we’ve already learned,” Potarazu says, and she hopes that’s part of why the proposed her plan was so well received by the teachers.
The bigger challenge is finding people qualified to teach this information. “You’re dealing with a generation of teachers who, for the most part, were educated before climate change and other environmental issues became relevant. So they’re not necessarily ready to teach about it,” says Potter.
One way around this is to create lesson plans that can be made publicly available, as is the case at Emory and Minnesota. This plug-and-play model allows teachers to easily use this information in their lessons, personalizing it as they see fit. For example, a school in California might want to focus more on preventing respiratory problems caused by wildfire smoke, while a school in Arizona would focus on treating adverse reactions to extreme heat.
Another approach is to train existing teachers on climate topics as part of their continuing education. Sorenson launched the 10-week Climate and Health Specialist Course to help medical professionals around the world receive free, expert-led training on these issues.
One day, hopefully in the near future, these parallels may even appear in medicine licensing exams6encouraging teachers to set priorities for the future.
It is believed that once this information is shared by the teachers with the students, it will spread quickly in the communities. “When you have 100,000 medical students that go through their training every year, and then each of them goes to a different community and has the training to really advocate for environmental health in that community, we start to see a change,” says Sorenson.