Climate Medicine: Inspiring a New Generation of Climate Conscious Clinicians

Since his graduation in 2018 from UVM’s Larner College of Medicine, Stefan Wheat, M.D., has completed an emergency medicine residency at The University of Arizona Medical Center in Tucson, Ariz., and is currently an emergency medicine physician at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center.

Before medical school and while at Larner, Wheat was very conscious of the link between climate change and health. His interest grew to a passion and commitment that he is actively embracing as a University of Colorado Climate Change Health Science & Policy program fellow, an adjunct associate research scientist at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, and a physician fellow for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In the following post, he calls on the next generation of physicians to join him in this work, explaining how health care and climate change are inextricably linked.

Wheat poses for a portrait photo against a dark backdrop where a red plaid colored shirt and black and yellow striped tie.
Wheat’s portrait photo for his residency program, taken at UVM Larner Med in 2017.

The Story of Self

Health is increasingly recognized as an important lens through which to measure the effects of climate change. Yet, despite years of sobering warnings of this very real threat and the clear human health implications posed by climate change, the medical community has been slow to respond.

As a medical student, I wrote a blog post in 2014, titled, “Conservation Medicine: Be a Doctor, Save the Planet.” In the post, I recalled my experience working with a non-governmental organization called Health in Harmony in rural Borneo to link the urgent need for public health with environmental protection. In that post, I reflected on my hope “to serve as a compassionate caregiver,” but also “to help lead my community in developing an attitude towards health care that treats human health and environmental health as inextricably linked.”

Further, I wrote, “Whether advocating for a culturally sensitive approach to issues of substance use disorder or promoting environmentally conscious behavior, being a doctor means serving as a community leader. Though many other disciplines and careers may contribute to the resolution of our planet’s woes, the proper application of health care has the potential to affect the most immediate and lasting positive change.”

During medical school, I struggled to find ways to reconcile my pursuit to become a doctor with my deeply held belief that, “humans are merely a single species in a much greater whole and what happens to the ecosystem affects everything, including human health.”

I latched onto my prior experience with Health in Harmony because it seemed to be a sound model for how physicians could help promote the coupling of public health with environmental protection.

I crossed paths with Health in Harmony again in November 2021–this time in Glasgow, Scotland at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP26) international meeting. I attended as a fellow in Climate & Health Science and Policy from the University of Colorado School of Medicine and presented with my cohort at the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Health Pavilion on “Why We Need Climate Doctors.”

As the risks of climate change are further elucidated, the voices of health professionals are critical in policy-making that protects people.

Wheat, left, runs an emergency response team training session on the Greenland Ice Sheet, where he’s currently working as a medic for the National Science Foundation’s Polar Research Program Summit Station.

The Story of Us

An editorial published in 200 international health journals, including the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine, has identified climate change as the “greatest threat to global public health.” The Lancet and the WHO have declared climate change as the greatest threat to global health in the twenty-first century, but also the greatest opportunity. The Biden administration has placed climate and health at the forefront of its policy agenda. In addition, the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) launched its Grand Challenge on Climate Change, Human Health, and Equity, “a multi-year global initiative to improve and protect human health, well-being, and equity by working to transform systems that both contribute to and are impacted by climate change.”

NAM’s initiative includes a number of key priorities: preparing health facilities across the United States for disruptions to normal operations provoked by climate-driven weather disasters; ensuring that clinicians and health systems are educated and prepared to safeguard the health of communities most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change; and catalyzing the net zero transition of healthcare such that every hospital and health system tracks its greenhouse gas emissions publicly. But who has the expertise, credibility, knowledge, and leadership skills to synthesize this complex landscape and craft a path forward?

Surely, a large-scale restructuring of healthcare systems to accommodate these priorities must involve stakeholders, including physicians, who can guide the process and ensure a safe and patient-oriented transition. This is fundamentally an issue of an impending workforce shortage. If doctors want to help direct this transformation of the healthcare sector to inform smart, patient-centric policies, then it’s time to scale up our own workforce through education and close this leadership gap. This is the mission of my fellowship and my career.

I work as a clinical instructor and emergency medicine fellow at the University of Colorado Anschutz Emergency Department. I’m also a physician-fellow at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Climate Change and Health Equity and an associate research scientist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health working to advance the mission of the Global Consortium on Climate and Health Education.

The Story of Now

I invite the next generation of physicians to join me in heeding the call-to-arms that the climate crisis demands of the medical profession.

There are so many ways to have an impact, but I would encourage you to start local. The Vermont Climate and Health Alliance has a phenomenal reputation for enacting change for Vermonters. Nationally, you can join the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health, which represents over 500,000 physicians nationwide — advocating for climate, and health oriented policy change.

As trusted messengers, physicians play a vital role in informing and preparing the public for the health impacts of climate change. In Greenland, where I am currently working as the medic at the National Science Foundation’s Polar Research Program Summit Station on the Greenland Ice Sheet, there is a copy of The Art of War by Sun Tsu. In it, is a quote that really struck me when I was reflecting on my fellowship year. It reads, “It is unlucky to be stubborn in the face of insurmountable odds.”

I hope to inspire a new generation of physicians to help promote patient-centric climate education, clinical practices, and policies, and to remain stubborn in the face of what often feels like insurmountable odds.