UCSF Sustainability Stories

Deborah Fleischer, Green Impact, February 2017

UCSF Medical School Inquiry Course Explores Link Between Climate Change and Health

The new UCSF Medical School Bridges Curriculum includes an emphasis on inquiry, allowing students to explore the frontiers of medicine and develop an appreciation for the methods of scientific discovery. In early January, as part of this new curriculum, first-year medical students participated in a two-week Inquiry Course. Among the many topics offered, UCSF sustainability champions Dr. Thomas Newman, Dr. Arianne Teherani, Dr. Sheri Weiser, Dr. Stan Glantz, and Dr. Peter Chin Hong collaborated to offer a course on climate change.

“Global warming is the biggest public health threat of the 21st century and is going to change life on earth as we know it. It is an essential part of any 21st century medical school curriculum,” stressed Dr. Newman. The Climate Change course focused on the question, “What should physicians know and do about climate change, sustainability, and health?”

Jason Parad, MBE, MPH, a first-year medical student who participated in the course, found the topic especially relevant to his career. “Climate change is a medical issue,” noted Jason. “We’re already seeing effects on all types of disease, from cardiovascular and respiratory to infectious and psychiatric.” He also related, “As trusted sources of information and key influencers of behavior, physicians are uniquely positioned to lead on climate change response.”

Climate Change Course Objectives and Curriculum

The course objectives included to:

• Describe the mechanisms by which human health is affected by environmental change;
• Discuss the contribution of human activity and population size to global environmental changes;
• Explain the concept of environmental justice and the core principles for addressing it; and
• Identify ways to improve the environmental sustainability of health systems.

It included 12 hours of class time, incorporating a range of health issues. Sessions included discussions about:

• The movies An Inconvenient Truth and Merchants of Doubt;
• Review of the health effects of climate change;
• The effects of diet on climate change and health;
• Similarities between the strategies used by the tobacco industry and by deniers of climate change;
• The connection between climate change and food security; and
• How climate change is impacting infectious diseases.

The course culminated in capstone projects where students pitched their own sustainability projects. Two of the students focused on a program for eliminating beef from UCSF and two other students focused on strategies for reducing airplane travel among students and faculty.

Student Motivation: To Get Better Informed on Climate Change

Students were able to select from a range of Inquiry Courses, including academic health and health reform, medical marijuana, violence and trauma, mental illness and dangerousness, and mindfulness medicine. Why did students decide to focus on climate change? Gabriela Weigel, UCSF School of Medicine MD Candidate, Year I, explained, “I was driven to better inform myself about this topic. Only by understanding the vast ramifications climate change has on the health of communities globally will I be able to adequately understand how to help effect change as a health professional.” 

According to Gabriela, there are two simple ways providers can bring up sustainability with their patients: through discussions of reducing red meat consumption and using eco-friendly modes of transportation such as walking or biking. “Both of these serve the dual purpose of benefiting the health of the patient as well as the environment. Additionally, I see it as the role of the physician to be knowledgeable of how climate change affects patients. For example, infectious disease patterns—including those for Zika, malaria, and Lyme disease—are shifting due to climate change, and providers should ensure their patients are informed, enabling them to take precautions and preventative measures to mitigate these risks,” said Gabriela.

She was particularly struck by the massive impact animal agriculture has on climate change and focused her capstone project on assessing how UCSF could reduce beef purchasing. Her final call to action to the UCSF Community: stop beef purchasing on campus and reduce work-related air travel. Jason added, “That’s not to say that instructing patients to forgo beef or limit travel is sufficient. Meaningful impact will require dialogue at the policy level.”

Since finishing the course, Gabriela, Jason, Briton Lee, and Neil Vaishnav have formed the Committee on Climate Change Policy Response, a student-led group that will work alongside the Academic Senate Sustainability Committee and UCSF Work Groups to accelerate meaningful policy proposals that can benefit from student activism. Their first campaign, “Beef-Free UC,” will encourage faculty, staff, and students that order food for meetings and events to commit to avoiding beef.

Go HERE to participate in a one-minute survey to help inform this new initiative.

Featured Video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8ii9zGFDtc&t=16s