Nurses make up the largest group of healthcare professionals in the United States, and nursing has been the most trusted profession in the United States for several years, according to a 2015 Gallup survey about honesty and ethics.
Because they are in a unique position to influence patients, nurses are called by their professional standards to address environmental health risks, including climate change. The overall health effects of a changing climate are likely to be overwhelmingly negative, because even minor, incremental shifts can affect social and environmental determinants of health such as:
- Air quality
- Food supply
- Drinking water safety
- Availability of secure shelter
Measuring the health effects caused by climate change is tricky. Its effects remain relatively unknown, but estimates put forward by climate scientists provide enough data for healthcare professionals to pay close attention to the potential risks to individual patients and the population.
An analysis conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO), which took into account only a subset of the possible health impacts and assumed continued economic growth and health progress, concluded that climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050 – 38,000 due to heat exposure; 60,000 due to malaria; 48,000 due to diarrhea; and 95,000 due to childhood malnutrition.
Based on the current and predicted health threats, all nurses are needed to work together to plan for the potential challenges posed by climate change.
Health Impacts and Risks
All populations are expected to be affected by climate change, but some will be more vulnerable than others. Those living in small island developing states and other coastal regions, megacities and mountainous and polar regions might be particularly vulnerable.
While climate change can impact health for everyone, children – especially those living in developing countries – are projected to be among the most vulnerable to health risks. The elderly, especially those with pre-existing medical conditions, are also expected to be vulnerable, as are people living in developing countries with weak health infrastructures.
There are several ways climate change can negatively impact health. They include:
- Severe weather
- Air pollution
- Increasing allergens
- Water quality impacts
- Extreme heat
- Environmental degradation
- Water and food supply impacts
- Changes in vector ecology
These can cause any one of the following health problems:
- Heat-related illness and death
- Cardiovascular disease
- Mental health problems
- Respiratory allergies
- Lyme disease
- Rift Valley fever
A Nurse’s Role in Public Health
On May 25, 2016 the White House partnered with the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments (ANHE) to host representatives from leading national nurses’ organizations to discuss the critical importance of fighting climate change to protect public health. The focus of this historic event was how nursing organizations can go about addressing the public health crisis that is climate change. By using the REAP Model that was established by the ANHE, public health nurses are able to address the broad categories of research, education, advocacy and practice as they relate to climate change.
Nurses can contribute to scientific findings by researching climate-related topics and health issues. In the past, nurses have contributed to scientific literature through epidemiological studies, educational frameworks, policy statements and practice initiatives.
The recent Climate and Health Assessment published by the U.S. Global Change Research Program outlines detailed research recommendations for nurses to consider including:
- Climate changes and health impacts
- Evaluation of adaptive interventions to reduce the number of adverse health outcomes
- How social determinants contribute to vulnerability to health impacts and mapping these vulnerabilities
- impacts on food safety and availability
- Evaluation of how climatic variables, socioeconomic factors and human behavior influence disease occurrence
- The ability of humans to respond to future disease threats
Nurses are expected to educate patients and other healthcare professionals, and have opportunities to include evidence and information about climate change in nursing schools, in continuing education for nurses, in patient education materials and in efforts to enlighten the public.
Nurses should be influential in policy decisions, through advocacy and by encouraging policy makers to support decisions that are good for the climate. It is critical that nurses educate policy makers on the need for strong action on climate change because of its potential health impacts.
Nurses are responsible for delivering direct care to people of all ages. Care related to climate change includes understanding the health impacts and treating individuals and families for health issues that arise, as well as potential steps citizens can take to help prevent climate change-related damage to the environment. For example, nurses are called by their professional standards to practice in a way that is environmentally safe and healthy to help reduce the climate impacts of their own practice.
Nursing leaders often are called upon to establish policy regarding issues such as climate change education. A Master of Science in Nursing from Jacksonville University’s Keigwin School of Nursing can prepare you for a leadership role in an ambulatory care setting, an academic setting and in hospitals.