Exploring Human Potential

Why Do Health Professionals and Their Schools Ignore The Planetary Patient?

Posted on | August 8, 2016 | 2 Comments

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Mike Magee

If health is defined today as the capacity to reach one’s full human potential, our environment – including the quality and availability of water, air, soil, and plant and animal life – are critical determinants of human health. For too long health professionals have considered the planetary patient as beyond their domain. In reality, it is the health of this “patient” that provides the basis for all other health endeavors.

In embracing and caring for this “patient”, we learn that integrated solutions, forward thinking, team approaches to problem solving, wise prioritization and investment, and careful governance are essential to the future well being of our human population. In caring for the planet, we are instructed and guided on how best to care for each other. But in reality, improving the health of our planetary patient requires changes in human behavior.

Changing behavior is both a function of the message and the messenger. And studies consistently affirm that there are are no more powerful messengers in society – when it comes confidence and trust – than health professionals. We must ask ourselves then, how much progress could be made if caring professionals, who increasingly are assuming team leadership roles on a local level,  were fully educated and engaged in environmental health and applied the social capital of their relationship with the people and the community to fuel societal behavioral change?

How many of us took the time last week to review the NOAA report that certified that global temperatures last year were the highest ever recorded on Earth? Or how about the report from the United Nations that weather related disasters including life claiming floods and drought in the past decade averaged 335 per year, twice the rate of the prior decade?

In an age of Trumpian systematic denial of knowledge and truthshould we be concerned that fellow health professionals worldwide are generally unaware that nearly 20 million of our global patients were forced out of their homes by weather just last year?

If we are able to get our act together post-election, perhaps America will see the long awaited investment in aging infra-structure, and even new efforts to protect costal areas from rising seas, and address rapidly disappearing aquifers in our heartlands. But for developing nations, what will be their options? They have had little to do with the carbonization of our global atmosphere, but the price they pay will be outsized, as they are forced to migrate across other nation’s borders to literally save their lives.

The UN recently reported that it could cost up to $300 billion to build warning systems, address flooding, manage water supply, address drought related food shortages and more by 2030. The New York Times reported this week that “While the world ponders ways to reduce emissions, the consequences of climate change are already underway.”

In a piece last week addressing “The Medicalization of Public Health”, I suggested that academic health professional schools be re-integrated into their liberal arts universities.  That recommendation was based on the fact that in the world of public health, advances in prevention and population wellness have almost nothing to do with genomics, bio-tech, and personalized stem cell therapies, and everything to do with integrated approaches to social policies that advantage human potential. NIH investment in “precision medicine”, even if the name is changed to “precision health”, is no more likely to address the needs of population based public health than Trump’s tweet on January 25, 2014 about the “GLOBAL WARMING HOAX” will address the repercussions of a dangerously carbonized atmosphere.

Why do health professionals fail to see planetary health as part of their domain? Perhaps it is because their broader education was cut short by segregated pre-medical curricula, cloistered medical and nursing schools, and war-zone brutalizing residency training programs. Perhaps physicians and nurses and others were never allowed to fully develop, to explore social justice policy, to embrace environmental science, to understand how best to motivate enlightened human behavior. Perhaps we never reached our human potential, and maybe that’s why we have been unable to address the pressing needs of a planetary patient gasping for air, thirsting for clean water, and yearning for safety and security.


2 Responses to “Why Do Health Professionals and Their Schools Ignore The Planetary Patient?”

  1. Denise Link
    August 16th, 2016 @ 10:35 pm

    Dear Mike, as I might have mentioned before, I enjoy reading your commentaries and often post them to my facebook page. One thing I have to take issue with in this post, if I understand the point you are making, is the implication that nursing curriculum does not address environmental issues and nurses are not active in the discussions about the critical need to correct behaviors that are destroying our planet, otherwise known as the social and environmental determinants of health. If you take a look at the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) Essentials of Baccalaureate Nursing, you will see that there is a requirement to include such topics in the curriculum in order for the program to be accredited. Likewise, our doctoral Essentials document that is the framework for our advanced practice nursing programs has a similar requirement. In addition, the doctoral programs prepare graduates to be leaders in the health policy arena where they can impact decisions about management of natural resources. Our state nurses association includes public health issues as part of our legislative and regulatory agenda. I think nursing has room for improvement to raise these issues to the same level of attention as those that are the more “traditional” health topics – direct patient care, access to health care, etc., but it is definitely on our radar screen.

  2. Mike Magee
    August 17th, 2016 @ 8:51 am

    Thanks, Denise for sharing this very important information! Would welcome a Guest Blog posting on this topic and the various ways the Nursing Profession is advancing planetary health. As always, thanks for your leadership and clear voice for the profession. Mike

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