Feature Stories

Eden Harris, Energy Communications and Outreach Fellow - February 2020

Planetary Health Justice Report Card

Image source:  Bennett Kissel, UCSF Medical Student

If the US healthcare industry were a country, it would rank 13th globally in greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to emissions, hospitals generate over 29 pounds of waste per patient per day, totaling over 5 million tons of waste per year. The health impacts of this footprint are tremendous, including air and water pollution, waste generation, and an increased energy demand.

A group of medical students at UCSF, connected through Human Health and Climate Change , is working to increase awareness of the health care industry’s impact and stimulate change. Modeled after the Racial Justice Report Card created by White Coats 4 Black Lives, UCSF students aimed to develop a way to evaluate medical schools based on four categories:

1. Planetary health curriculum
2. Interdisciplinary research in health and environment
3. Community outreach and advocacy in environment and health and
4. University support for student-led planetary health initiatives

Scoring their own coursework and resources based on the Planetary Health Justice Report Card, students awarded UCSF a “B” overall. Among some of its strengths, UCSF offers electives on planetary health, addresses the impact of climate on infectious diseases and industry-related pollution, and offers a year-long fellowship for medical students to enact a planetary health initiative.

Room for Improvement

In addition to highlighting UCSF’s strengths, the Report Card pointed out key areas for improvement. While UCSF addresses the heightened impact of environmental toxins and climate change on vulnerable populations, it falls short in engaging with those communities; the university offers community-facing events on planetary health and environment less than once per year. Additionally, there is currently no centralized hub focused on planetary health for students to engage with. However, UCSF has made significant steps to incorporate planetary health into education. The university provides incentives for faculty and departments to develop new planetary health curriculum and supports a variety of research topics on the subject. Still, students hope for greater integration of climate awareness into their coursework.
climate striking for a healthy future climate change is a health emergency




Image source:  Bennett Kissel, UCSF Medical Student

Second-year medical students Karly Hampshire and Bennett Kissel described their motivations behind their interest in working on the Planetary Health Justice Report Card. “Climate change is the biggest global health threat and yet our education doesn’t reflect that at all,” described Karly. Discussing the connection between climate and health, Bennett responded that “[he doesn’t] see them as separate issues.”

A Nationwide Student Movement

Since its development, the Planetary Health Justice Report Card has sparked conversations between medical students and their administrations at schools nationwide, including Brown, Columbia, Creighton, George Washington, McGill, Penn, Penn State, Stanford, Tufts, University of Hawaii, University of Michigan, and University of Minnesota. Students at these partner institutions are working with their deans and creating their own report cards, which will eventually be compiled into a national report. “The most exciting aspect of it is that it’s drawing in like-minded students across the country,” Bennett shared. The report card also includes a survey, allowing UCSF students to gather data on medical students’ perception of climate change at collaborating institutions.

Student collaborators Genevieve Silva and Jeromy Gotschall at Penn said that the Planetary Health Justice Report Card “sparked a lot of conversations on [their] campus and made [them] think of other areas to target.” As Penn’s student group continues to grow, Jeromy remarked, “It was exciting to get involved in this national conglomerate of med students interested in making change in their education.” Similar to student efforts at UCSF, Genevieve and Jeromy are working with administration to recognize climate change as a structural determinant of health and incorporate this topic into first year curriculum. By sharing best practices at each campus, students at both institutions have fostered new ideas for improvement.

Along with Karly and Bennett, UCSF med students Sarah Schear, Colin Baylen, and Nuzhat Islam have also been involved in the report card. Together, their work is centered around raising awareness of the health impacts of climate change and creating a community of students interested in tackling the planetary health crisis. In their limited time on UCSF’s campus, students like Karly and Bennett hope to make a lasting impact on the curriculum, research opportunities, and support for community engagement. A common issue on most university campuses is the transience of the student population; the work done by a group of students may easily come undone without continued support. Thus, two of Karly and Bennett’s biggest goals are to see climate change more deeply integrated into first and second-year curriculum, and to aid in the creation of an Earth Center.

In addition to education surrounding climate change and human health, Bennett explained his desire for students to receive training on how to talk about the climate crisis with patients. Communicating the impact that climate change and pollution have on patients’ symptoms requires depoliticizing the issue and explaining it in terms most useful to the patient’s well-being. As climate change continues to threaten human health, UCSF medical students aim to prepare for the challenges ahead.