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Environmental Health Division
Champion Stories: Anna Rahrick
Meet Anna Rahrick.
Anna is a fourth-year med student at the University of Minnesota. Since her first year, Anna has been an active member of Health Students for a Healthy Climate—an interprofessional nonprofit based in Minnesota. Apart from her involvement in Health Students for a Healthy Climate, Anna co-chairs the advocacy team at (MS4SF) Medical Students for a Sustainable Future. Anna, along with fellow University of Minnesota medical students, recently started a local chapter of MS4SF. In the coming year, the local chapter will work on integrating climate change into the medical school’s curriculum.
How does your work deal with climate and health?
Anna: Through our local chapter of MS4SF, we hope to integrate climate change into the med school curriculum. As it currently stands, there are a couple PowerPoint slides scattered throughout the first two years explaining that vector borne diseases are increasing because of climate change and that pollution affects people’s respiratory health. Beyond that, there is one other climate and health presentation that students are supposed to independently browse. Overall, climate and health does not appear in the curriculum as often as it should given the many ways in which the two intersect. All med students will have a new curriculum starting in 2023. We’re hoping to integrate climate change into public health and diversity, equity, and inclusion threads, particularly, through talking about environmental justice. It’s really important for future physicians to learn about how climate change is going to affect their patients. Another thing I have been involved in is the Planetary Health report card. The Planetary Health Report Card is a way to evaluate how the medical school is doing in terms of addressing climate change in its curriculum, research, and outreach.
How do you promote environmental justice and health equity in your work?
Anna: One of the ways in which we promote environmental justice and health equity is through our curriculum work. More specifically, we hope to talk more about how climate change will impact vulnerable patients. In terms of our advocacy work, we believe that environmental justice is incredibly important and should be incorporated at all times. It’s essential to focus on the fact that climate change disproportionately impacts certain populations. We’ve tried to stress this in the advocacy work we’ve been doing.
As a medical student, why do you think it’s important for you to integrate climate change into your work?
Anna: As someone who will eventually take care of patients (and already is in some capacity), I think it’s so important to be aware of all the ways in which climate change impacts patient health. Understanding climate-related health impacts is especially critical considering that ten, twenty years from now when I’m a practicing provider, these health impacts will be so much worse. For instance, it’s essential to be aware of the ways in which heat waves, increasing pollution, and spreading vector borne diseases impact our patients. It’s also essential that medical students learn how to discuss climate and health with patients. We haven’t really seen these discussions incorporated into the curriculum. However, taking an environmental history during a patient exam is a great way to figure out their risk factors for certain conditions. If a patient lives within a specific area of the city where pollution levels are high, they may be at risk for additional conditions or exacerbated asthma.
What is something impactful that medical students can do to protect people’s health in the face of climate change?
Anna: I’m a huge fan of advocacy. I think that physicians and med students have, for better or for worse, a bigger voice than others—a voice that people will listen to. We can use that voice in a really positive and productive way. Talking about climate change and health is one of those ways. I think that advocacy is a great way to get involved. There are opportunities to advocate on so many levels. Right now, I’m largely involved in institutional advocacy—trying to make changes within my institution. That being said, there are so many ways to get involved at the local, state, or national level. I would love to see more med students speaking out about climate and health.
How has climate change impacted you, or your community, personally?
Anna: A couple of years ago when I was traveling in California, I got stuck on a road super close to the wildfires. That was terrifying! Overall, though, I think it can be harder for Minnesotans to say that they have personally experienced the effects of climate change, which sometimes makes it less likely for people to act because they feel as if it isn’t directly affecting them. That being said, I had a patient this past year who said that the smoke coming down from the fires in the boundary waters was making her asthma worse. Also, I’ve already seen many patients with Lyme disease, of which that number will only grow. Climate change is impacting our patients, and we will only see this more in years to come.
What do you think are the biggest climate and health challenges going forward?
Anna: The politicization of climate change and how slow things seem to happen on the national legislative level. Not much climate work has happened within the past couple of years. Before that, our progress was trending backwards, and things are starting to trend that way again with the recent Supreme Court ruling regarding the EPA. It can be very frustrating to see and can make a lot of people feel really powerless. However, I do think that there’s a lot individual states can do, even if climate action isn’t happening nationally. I am hopeful that states and cities will start to act.
On the flip side, does anything give you hope for the future of climate and health?
Anna: I’ve seen a lot of people who are incredibly invested in climate and health—from med students to physicians to activists in local and national nonprofit organizations. These people give me hope. There are so many great people out there speaking out and doing really amazing work. As an undergrad, I was able to attend COP 23 in Germany. The experience was so cool. Even though there are some who push back against climate action, there are so many people who care.
How can someone without public health experience help highlight climate change as a public health crisis?
Anna: I am a huge fan of storytelling as a form of advocacy. Within advocacy, storytelling adds a personal touch and makes people care. Everyone has a story to share even if they think they don’t. There are ways that people can connect health and climate to their own lives, and to their friends and families’ lives. Sharing stories is a great way to broach climate and health within a normal conversation.