Detroit medical student hopes for health care model that factors in climate change

Join us this Friday, June 24 at noon on Planet Detroit’s Facebook page for a Live conversation on Health & Climate Change with Dr. Lisa DelBuono, founder of Michigan Clinicians for Climate Action and Taylor Barrow, a third-year medical student at Wayne State University REGISTER HERE

Native Detroiter Taylor Barrow spent a decade on the East Coast as a social worker after college. She often felt overwhelmed by her caseload and lack of resources, especially when faced with systemic issues like poverty and pollution that she knew were impacting her clients’ health.

Taylor Barrow, third-year medical student at Wayne State University

“I was burned out, but I also felt like I was up against a wall in terms of the care that I could give,” Barrow told Michigan Climate News. “Then I kind of flipped tracks and began the med school journey.”

Now a rising third-year medical student at Wayne State University, Barrow has added climate activism to her list of activities. Through her volunteer community organizing work with the nonprofit advocacy group Eastside Community Network, Barrow came across the Michigan Clinicians for Climate Action, or MiCCA, a statewide affiliate of the Medical Consortium on Climate & Health. The consortium unites more than 600,000 health care providers across multiple medical associations, including the American Medical Association, to advocate for climate policy.

Dr. Lisa Del Buono founded MiCCA during the pandemic after taking an early retirement from her position as a surgical pathologist in Traverse City.

“The goal is to educate our peers, but also the public and policymakers, on the health impacts of climate change, and change the messaging around climate change,” Del Buono told Michigan Climate News. We feel that as health professionals, we should be able to help change the narrative, such that it helps the average person see the human face of climate change rather than a polar bear face of climate change. Health is really the human face of climate change.”

DelBuono points to the Center for Disease Control & Prevention’s website on climate effects on health as an excellent primer on the links between climate change and health. According to the site, the Midwest can expect health impacts related to temperature-related death and illness, worsening air quality, extreme events like flooding, vector-borne diseases, and mental health and well-being.

Source: Center for Disease Control & Prevention

“I think the biggest one is the fact that [climate change] acts as a threat multiplier. So you can take any chronic condition that is well managed, and add climate change showed extreme heat events extreme weather event and catapulted into medical emergency,” Del Buono said.

That last item is especially important to Barrow, who hopes to work in psychiatry. She sees an essential nexus between climate change and the mental health of the communities she hopes to serve in her career.

“I don't think there's a narrative out there. Lower-income majority-black neighborhoods are at the forefront of the effects of climate change,” Barrow said. “I want to bring in the mental toll that that takes generationally… and how to take care of your mental health when you're at the center of the climate crisis.”

Barrow thinks its essential for physicians to connect the dots for patients between the health issues they experience and the disproportionate burden of climate impacts they are likely experiencing. She said that making those connections is crucial for giving patients agency and improving mental health.

“I think it goes to the fact that we need to build more patient trust. People have to want to see us so that they can maintain treatment, be successful, and continue to be healthy throughout the rest of their lives. And I think we've seen a lot of distrust because there's a lack of connection,” Barrow said. “We're immediately trained to… give an oversimplified answer that makes people lose autonomy. I think encouraging and understanding climate change's effects as a physician gives [patients] more autonomy when they come to see us.”

Barrow recalls a patient she saw last summer who had “super-high anxiety around flooding..” “She was just so nervous when the rain was coming because previously, the rain wiped out her entire house,” Barrow said. Although Barrow wasnlt able to follow up with that patient, she'd like to pioneer a health care model that centers on patients’ anxieties.

”What that care would look like is not only having her concerns validated and anxiety, but also do I have resources for things like how to appeal to FEMA to get recovery care just in case there is flooding? Do I have resources for dealing with anxiety beyond medications with access to counselors? So I think when it comes to giving folks autonomy, I want them to feel comfortable talking to me about things. They come in with symptoms, but it may be something else, or it can be a result of upstream effects.”

Barrow said she’s mainly looking outside of her medical curriculum right now for resources on tackling these topics.

“It's the root of a lot of my frustration medical education is that medicine is a very social profession. Still, we're not necessarily trained in that social aspect,” she said. “The fact thatto, Detroit has higher rates of cardiovascular disease is all about hypertension, but we're not talking about okay, why, what's happening behind this, right? The root causes. I think a lot of folks are starting to talk about it, but I haven't found it trickled down into med curriculum.”

Here are some web resources ot learn more about the linkages between and health and climate change, and the local and national organizations working on addressing them.

Climate Effects on Health | CDC

Health Care Without Harm

After COP26 — Putting Health and Equity at the Center of the Climate Movement | NEJM

Climate Change and Human Health – National Academy of Medicine

Planetary Health Report Card

White Coats for Planetary Health (WCPH) | University of Michigan Medical School

Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health

These Natural Disasters Can Occur in Michigan! Are You Prepared? – Crisis Equipped

Join us this Friday, June 24 at noon on Planet Detroit’s Facebook page for a Live conversation on Health & Climate Change with Dr. Lisa DelBuono, founder of Michigan Clinicians for Climate Action and Taylor Barrow, a third-year medical student at Wayne State University REGISTER HERE

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