Connecting Climate Change and Health

HMS to embed climate change, impact on health in MD curriculum

Photo of helicopter dousing large CA forest fire with bucket of water
Firefighting helicopter dumping water to extinguish forest fire. Image: Toa55/istock/Getty Images Plus

Natalie Baker, a second-year student at Harvard Medical School, grew up in Northern California. In her lifetime, she’s seen the environment there change. More heat and intense wildfires have seared the landscape in recent years, adversely affecting the lives of her loved ones and some of the patients with whom she's worked.

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“I remember one particularly poignant moment for me was during the big wildfire season in 2019, when my lungs were hurting in the morning as I biked to my lab in an N-95 mask,” she said.

One of the patients Baker helped at the time had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, but was trying to continue working outdoors, despite the advice of physicians.

“You're essentially asking me to choose between my health and my livelihood and providing for my family,” she recalled him saying.

Fourth-year HMS student Julia Malits spent a few years conducting epidemiological research in environmental pediatrics before she began medical school.

“I was conducting research abroad, in Bangalore and Southern India, on maternal and child health,” Malits said.

“While I was there, I saw firsthand, and experienced myself, the effects of outdoor air pollution; just seeing countless individuals presenting to the clinic with respiratory complaints, including myself. And I was just really outraged that this is a preventable problem that so many individuals are forced to deal with,” she said.

Gaurab Basu, an HMS instructor in medicine at Cambridge Health Alliance and the founding co-director of the CHA Center for Health Equity Education and Advocacy, began connecting the dots between climate change and health about five years ago following the issuance of a 2018 UN panel report on global warming. That’s when a young man in his 20s came to Basu’s emergency room for treatment.