As a family doctor, I’ve lived through the turmoil of changing health policy and technology for over 35 years. I participated early in the patient safety and quality improvement movement, which provided the intellectual infrastructure to assess problems at the right level, to find root causes and to use data to find solutions.
Family doctors care for the whole person in the context of their community, and interact with all parts of the health care system. Polls suggest that more people are concerned about health care than any other issue in their lives. Good health is fundamental to our personal and family peace of mind, and is interwoven with the health of the world around us.
Since retirement, I find myself concerned about the health of a very big system. If we are reading and listening to scientists, we have heard that carbon dioxide is increasing to levels not seen for 800,000 years and that the last four years are the hottest years on record since humans began keeping track. If we have not abandoned the belief in the scientific method, which has brought us so many improvements in our health and life span, then we know that the higher frequency and intensity of wildfires, floods and superstorms is directly connected with climate change. Having based my career on the scientific method and having seen the benefits obtained, I listen to my colleagues in the geophysical and biological sciences when they shout a warning.
In June, 74 medical organizations including the ones to which all your doctors belong, released a report about how the health of the planet is impacting our health; the U.S. Call to Action on Climate, Health, and Equity. They concluded that “climate change is one of the greatest threats to health America has ever faced — it is a true public health emergency.” A root cause is human-induced global warming related to the burning of fossil fuels for the past 150 years.
Doctors are already seeing the impact of these changes on their patients.
More people are showing up in emergency rooms with heat-related illnesses. Pollution from the use of fossil fuels in energy production and transportation are causing excess deaths of people from heart attacks and lung disease. The World Health Organization calls air pollution the largest cause of preventable deaths in the world.
More and more children are coming to the office with asthma and allergy-related illness earlier in the season. Maybe you have read about diseases like chikungunya and dengue that are being seen in the United States for the first time. Maybe someone in your family has had Lyme disease transmitted by ticks that are increasing their range.
If you have been to the beach this summer to escape the heat, you may have heard about the concerns residents have about sea levels rising and the plans our military is making to protect the largest naval base in the U.S. But have you connected the dots?
A physician learns that people are resilient, and that time is a great healer, but one of the hardest lessons we come to learn is that sometimes we just do not have enough time. I have no doubt that Earth will survive the present climate crisis. I’m just not sure that humanity will.
We have been told we don’t have a lot of time. We must connect the dots. We must understand that drought, extreme heat and floods impact human health and our food supply, that pollinators and ocean health are parts of the web of life we cannot live without.
We can use our scientific tools to diagnose this illness. We can listen to the best minds of our times, the 28 Nobel Prize winning economists, who state that a price on carbon is the most effective tool we have for a rapid decrease in carbon dioxide.
It requires a renewed belief in our foundational principles and priorities, a commitment to an equitable democracy, by and for the people, and to science. We must work together and use our collective will to break this fever.
Dr Susan Miller is a family physician who served the Midlothian community for 20 years and retired from the department of family medicine and population health at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2017. She is now working with Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action and the Citizens Climate Lobby to protect our health.
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