Health Professionals Can Play Important Role in Combatting Climate Change, Guest Lecturer Says

By Linda Satter

As the inaugural lecturer for The Richard and Ellen Sandor Lecture Series on Medicine and Sustainability on March 30, Dzau said that health care professionals represent one of the most trusted professions in the United States, and as such, have a duty to communicate about the effects of climate change on their patients and the community at large.

“Climate change can lead to many, many different illnesses in human beings,” said Dzau, chancellor emeritus at Duke University and past CEO of Duke Health System.

He told an audience in the Fred Smith Auditorium of the UAMS Jackson T. Stephens Spine & Neurosciences Institute that 20 million deaths each year across the globe are due to factors that are linked to climate change. For example, he said 7 million deaths, including 100,000 annually in the United States, are related to air pollution. Additionally, vector-borne diseases — those transmitted by blood-feeding arthropods, such as malaria and Dengue fever — rise each year.

Worldwide, half a million children die each year because they lack access to safe drinking water, and still others experience stunted growth and impaired mental development as a result of poor nutrition, both related to climate change, Dzau said.

He said “pollution inequity” is a term referring to the unequal effects of climate change on people with lower socio-economic status. He cited the South Bronx area of New York City, where he said 90% of the residents are “of color,” and the effects of industries such as printing have led to the area being nicknamed “asthma alley.” Similarly, Dzau said, an area of Louisiana that is home to petroleum businesses has become known as “cancer alley.”

“We need to realize this is not a future issue, but that people are dying,” Dzau said to an audience that included UAMS physicians, researchers and administrators.

Several UAMS officials are among those who listened raptly to Dzau's call for action by the medical community.

Several UAMS officials are among those who listened raptly to Dzau’s call for action by the medical community.Evan Lewis

He said that the health care sector itself emits about 8.5% of carbon emissions in the United States as a result of operations, purchased sources of energy and, indirectly, the emissions from the supply chain used for health care goods and services.

The academy that Dzau leads was founded in 1970 as the Institute of Medicine and evolved under his leadership to become the National Academy of Medicine. Among its initiatives is the Grand Challenge in Climate and Health, launched in 2020, that “aims to reverse the effects of climate on health by mobilizing the biomedical community to drive changes through research, communication and policy, and by taking actions to decarbonize the health care sector.”

Dzau’s talk, “Climate, Health and Equity: The Case for Collective Action from the Health Systems,” was made possible by a generous gift to UAMS from the Richard and Ellen Sandor Family Foundation.

Richard Sandor, Ph.D., is a businessperson, economist and entrepreneur who lectures in law and economics at the University of Chicago Law School. Ellen Sandor is an artist and the founding director of (art)n, a Chicago-based collective of artists, scientists, mathematicians and computer experts.

“We have brought together 180 experts representing diverse sectors,” Dzau told the audience, adding that doctors, nurses, researchers and others in the health care industry need to be educated about climate change and equipped with the tools to address it.

“We feel there is a lot of opportunity for companies to be innovative,” he said, with a nod toward researchers and “your front-line workers — your doctors — to say we need to do something about climate change.”

He said individuals and communities are rarely engaged in decisions that impact the health of their communities, but clinicians “are uniquely positioned to be the messengers of climate change.”