New group wants health care workers to factor in climate change for diagnoses, treatment

  • FILE — Potatoes await harvesting at Green Thumb Farms, Sept. 27, 2017, in Fryeburg, Maine. University of Maine researchers are trying to produce potatoes that can better withstand warming temperatures as the climate changes. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File) Robert F. Bukaty

  • Girl with asthma inhaler. Girl with asthma problems (or allergy) making inhalation with mask on her face. Inhalation treatment of respiratory diseases. Wojciech Kozielczyk

Monitor staff
Published: 12/2/2021 4:53:37 PM

The problems raised by the climate emergency are so sweeping that they are usually faced by engineers, politicians, planners and others who deal in the big picture.

That needs to change, according to a new education group called NH Healthcare Workers for Climate Action, which seeks to help nurses, doctors, therapists and social workers add knowledge and communication about climate to their regular toolkit.

“Climate change is not thought of, or written about, as much as it could be with respect to health,” said Dr. Bob Friedlander Jr., a retired Concord oncologist who helped found the organization. He pointed to an editorial in the recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine which said that “nowhere are the effects of climate change manifesting more clearly than in human health … which already kills millions of people per year.”

“There’s an awareness gap among health care workers in the state about the severity of the climate crisis and its impact on health,” Friedlander said.

Friedlander ticked off health effects of climate change less visible than floods or forest fires such as heat stress from rising temperatures – “it’s hard to believe in Northern New England that now we are seeing cooling centers … during heat waves” – worsening asthma, health and lung disease caused by pollution, increase in more water- and food-borne illnesses and diseases carried by mosquitoes and ticks moving north as winter recedes, and longer pollen seasons causing more allergies.

Helping patients with their health increasingly means finding out which of these factors may be contributing, he said.

“If there’s a young child with asthma … it could potentially be related to heat or air quality, or increasing allergies because of a protracted pollen season. A care provider could frame the symptoms in the context of climate change to the child and the parents,” he said.

And this could also “mobilize the parents – maybe the child, depending on the age – to get involved and advocate for climate solutions” so that others don’t have to suffer as well, he said.

“The mission of our organization is to activate health-care workers,” Friedlander said. “By ‘activate’ I mean increasing their awareness and knowledge of the impacts of climate on health, and encouraging them and providing them the tools to educate and mobilize their patients and family members, community members and policy makers.”

The new organization is a state chapter of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health. It will officially launch Saturday during an event in front of the State House in Concord on Saturday at 10 a.m.

“This is an interdisciplinary grassroots coalition. It also involves students and trainees in all their disciplines,” Friedlander said. “This is primarily about their future and they need to have a big voice in what our organization looks like and what we accomplish.”

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog, as well as moderator of the monthly Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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