Feature Stories

Robert Hood

Infusing Climate Change and Sustainability Into Medical Education

A group of faculty and students at the UC San Francisco School of Medicine have introduced climate change and sustainability curriculum into the school’s preclinical curriculum and plans are underway to expand the effort.

The Climate Health and Sustainability (CHASE) Initiative aims to infuse comprehensive, longitudinal, and equity-focused climate change and sustainability curriculum into UCSF’s foundational medical education. The initiative is supported by an Innovations Funding for Education Grant from the UCSF Academy of Medical Educators and is backed by the UCSF School of Medicine leadership.

UCSF Medical Student Taryn Sirias is working with fellow students Allan Ndovu, Neha Pondicherry, Rio Barrere-Cain, Karly Hampshire and faculty members Dr. Nick Iverson and Dr. Heather Whelan to make it simple to add climate change and sustainability information to the preclinical curriculum.

The CHASE team developed a comprehensive toolkit for creating core climate change and sustainability curricula, including a detailed map of learning objectives with learning strategies and references. Team members use these resources to collaborate with course directors and faculty educators to incorporate climate content into existing educational materials.

Team members provide one-on-one content creation support to course directors and lecturers, who have been receptive to this method and the materials. The course directors have been open to climate change being included in the preclinical curriculum, and the students hope to work alongside the Anti-Oppression Curriculum (AOC) Initiative to integrate their changes into other curricular efforts.

The World Health Organization has identified climate change as the single biggest health threat facing humanity and it has been linked to increases in everything from infectious diseases and poor mental health to cardiovascular disease, disproportionately affecting already vulnerable populations and communities. The U.S. healthcare system is a significant contributor to climate change because of its production of greenhouse gases and medical waste.

Today’s medical students will be the physicians of tomorrow, and they will be on the front lines responding to climate change’s health impacts. To be prepared, they need to learn crucial skills, including how to educate their patients on prevention of climate-related health effects, how to improve the sustainability of their practices, and how to advocate for sustainable, systemic change.

Several members of the team recently led a national study of 600 medical student perspectives regarding climate change and sustainability education and found that, while 83.9 percent of students believe the health effects of climate change should be included in medical education, only 13 percent thought their school currently had sufficient curriculum.

Faculty members can contact Nick Iverson (.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)) or Heather Whelan (.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)) to discuss which CHASE curricular objectives align with their educational sessions and where the CHASE team can help with development of content and integration. It’s important for faculty to use their voice- the more faculty who advocate for content to be included in curricula with institutional and national curricular leadership, the more likely it will receive attention.

Students should contact their professors and Deans to let them know they are interested in learning more about the effects of climate change on health. The team is looking for new members for content development and can provide training for students who are not experienced in this area. Additionally, students can attend the ‘Environmental Health and Health Professional Activism’ course which will be led in Fall 2022 by 2nd year medical students.

Members of the UCSF community can be involved in advocating for systemic change by learning about and voting for candidates and policies that address climate change and mitigate the negative impact it has on health. 

Joining groups such as Medical Students for a Sustainable Future (MS4SF) can also help students network, learn more, get mentorship and become involved in projects of interest at a national level.

An additional resource for both faculty and students is the newly founded UCSF Center for Climate, Health and Equity (https://climatehealth.ucsf.edu/)

The group is working to expand climate change education into the Core Inquiry Curriculum (CIC) and are hoping to establish community partnerships. The goal of the inquiry curriculum is to train medical students to develop an inquisitive habit of mind, challenge current concepts, and create new knowledge – skills critical for the success of the 21st century physician.