WASHINGTON -– American medical professionals specializing in respiratory conditions and critical care are concerned about what climate change may mean for patient health, a new survey finds.
A survey of members of the American Thoracic Society, which represents 15,000 physicians and other medical professionals who work in the fields of respiratory disease, critical care and sleep disorder, finds that the majority of respondents said they were already seeing health effects in their patients that they believe are linked to climate change. Seventy-seven percent said they have seen an increase in chronic diseases related to air pollution, and 58 percent said they'd seen increased allergic reactions from plants or mold. Fifty-seven percent of participants said they'd also seen injuries related to severe weather.
An overwhelming majority -- 89 percent -- agreed that climate change is happening, and 65 percent said they thought climate change was relevant to direct patient care. Forty-four percent said they thought climate change was already affecting the health of their patients a "great deal" or a "moderate amount." Strong majorities of respondents also said that heat, vector-borne infections, air pollution and allergies would likely affect patients in the next 10 to 20 years.
Numerous scientific studies have found links between climate change and a variety of health problems.
The survey was conducted by the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University and will be published in the February edition of the journal Annals of the American Thoracic Society. The center has previously surveyed members of the National Medical Association, a society of African-American physicians, and also plans to survey members of the American Academy of Family Physicians; the American Academy of Pediatrics; and the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
Dr. Mona Sarfaty, the director of the program on climate and health at the Center for Climate Change Communication and lead author of the paper, said in an interview with The Huffington Post that she was surprised by some of the anecdotes her team heard from physicians who responded to the survey. These included reports of seeing patients whose asthma has gotten worse due to ozone or other pollutant exposure, longer and more severe allergy seasons, and more cases of both acute and chronic lung conditions. Others cited lung problems related to exposure to smoke from wildfires and changes in precipitation and weather patterns that seemed to be affecting patients.
Having doctors engaged and concerned about climate change could help drive public opinion as well, Sarfaty said. "Not too many people personally know a climate scientist," she pointed out. "But they do know physicians, and physicians are well thought of."
"Doctors who are treating patients for a living believe they are seeing health effects in patients they are treating today. That brings home the message," said Gary Ewart, director of government relations at the American Thoracic Society. "Instead of a drowning polar bear issue, it turns into a kitchen-table issue, with real patient care starting to drive the discussion."
Ewart said the group undertook the survey to see whether members were interested in climate change and what they were seeing in their practices. Seventy-four percent of the survey respondents said they agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that "physicians should have a significant advocacy role in relation to climate change and health," while 75 percent agreed that medical societies should play an advocacy role.
Sarfaty said that the survey also shows that there is interest among doctors to know more about climate change and how it might impact their work. It "amounts to a call ... to provide more information to meet the needs of the doctors," she said. She noted that many medical organizations are not currently providing information on climate to their members.
Ewart said his group is hoping to change that. "There are a growing [number] of members in my society, and I suspect other societies, that are trying to elevate this as an issue."