Climate change and health – what can family doctors do?

Apr 22, 2021
While in grips of the pandemic’s third wave, climate change might feel distant and abstract, but the World Health Organization considers it the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century.

Climate change increasingly harms health and the determinants of health. Wildfires cause asthma and COPD exacerbations, trigger heart attacks and displace people from their homes; heatwaves can have deadly consequences; allergies and zoonotic diseases are on the rise; and flooding can compromise safe drinking water. Plus, climate change and the damage caused by extreme weather comes with a significant mental health burden.

So, what can family physicians and other healthcare professionals do to address or prevent these issues?

“As family physicians, we are obliged to both mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis,” says Dr. Samantha Green, a family physician and DFCM’s Faculty Co-lead in Climate Change and Health. “And climate change is not only an issue of social accountability. Working to mitigate climate change also provides short-term opportunities for patient health benefits, such as active transportation, plant rich diets, access to nature and reduced air pollution.”

To discuss the climate crisis, and the role of family physicians, Dr. Green and co-lead Dr. Edward Xie, hosted DFCM’s first climate change symposium – Health in a Changing Climate.

Supported by a scientific advisory committee and panels of international experts, the symposium focused on ways to advocate for climate justice, green healthcare ideas and education.

“The scale of the climate crisis can be overwhelming, so we are working with our community of practice on small changes with big impacts,” says Dr. Xie, who chaired the symposium’s scientific committee.  

One simple, practical change is switching metered-dose inhalers (MDI) for dry powder versions.

The hydrofluorocarbon propellant in MDIs is a potent greenhouse gas, and 100 doses from an MDI is equivalent to a 290 km journey by car. Dry powder inhalers can have a 30 times smaller carbon footprint, so switching can cut greenhouse gases from inhalers by 97%. Both physicians and patients are shocked when they hear this, and are motivated to change.

The Climate Change and Health community of practice is also working on educational resources and curriculum content in collaboration with University of Toronto medical students, DFCM residents and faculty. They also plan to produce ‘green office’ toolkits to provide practical sustainability ideas.  

“This is going to be a critical area for all of us in the coming years, so we were delighted to have a fantastic symposium turnout with 86% of attendees planning to put learnings into action, and 96% wanting to learn more,” says Dr. Xie. “Family physicians are the largest group of medical care professionals. We have huge potential to make a difference on climate change and the health of our patients.”