Extreme weather events like Ian and Fiona have become more intense due to climate change. This fact has implications for those of us in health care. We have a duty to protect the health of our patients and move forward. Climate change is killing them, and we must change the way we practice medicine in response.
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We can start by screening our patients for the effects of climate change as if it were a new vital sign.
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We typically think of health as something that doctors monitor and offer treatments, such as prescription drugs, as needed. But in reality, only 20% of a person’s health is attributable to the medical care they receive. The rest is determined by factors such as individual genetics, behaviors including eating and smoking habits, and socioeconomic conditions.
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Social determinants, such as a person’s neighborhood and socioeconomic status, are actually responsible for 40% to 50% of a person’s health outcomes. It is a sad fact that a zip code can predict a person’s health more than her genetic code.
Consider how extreme weather events, like this summer’s heat waves, disproportionately affect communities. Poorer urban neighborhoods, with fewer trees but lots of concrete and asphalt, absorb and retain heat from the sun’s rays, while leafy, shady suburbs are cooler a few miles away. A University of California-San Diego study that measured land surface temperatures in more than 1,000 counties in the United States found that neighborhoods with lower education levels and median incomes generally recorded higher temperatures.