Feature Story | 6-Dec-2022

New toolkit helps protect patients and prepare frontline health clinics for climate risks

Harvard Chan C-CHANGE and Americares collaborate on guidance to safeguard vulnerable patients from extreme heat, wildfires, hurricanes and floods

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

BOSTON - To help community health centers and clinics providing free or low-cost healthcare ​​better manage care and protect patients from climate risks, the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (Harvard Chan C-CHANGE) in collaboration with Americares and with financial support from Biogen, has released a new Climate Resilience for Frontline Clinics toolkit. The resources for clinic patients, providers, and staff on extreme heat, wildfires, hurricanes, and floods were developed as part of a project launched last year by these organizations.

Frontline clinics care for millions of our nation’s uninsured or underinsured patients. Yet they are often overwhelmed by climate shocks, in the form of more intense heatwaves and storms, which destroy infrastructure and supply chains and create power outages that threaten their ability to provide care and keep their patients healthy.

“What we hear time and again is that frontline clinics are the glue that hold their communities together when disasters strike. But with limited resources, and an ongoing pandemic, many don’t have the funding, training, or tools they need after a climate shock,” said Dr. Aaron Bernstein, Interim Director of Harvard Chan C-CHANGE. “We’re meeting clinics where they’re at with the resources they need so we can help prevent disease in the first place, make people more resilient to climate change, and reduce the healthcare sector’s greenhouse gas emissions.”

Harvard Chan C-CHANGE and Americares worked with frontline health clinics in California, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Texas to develop resources to help keep patients healthy before, during, and after climate shocks. The toolkit includes clinical guidance and information on how to develop action plans and alert systems, tip sheets for patients, checklists for clinic staff, and more. Materials on extreme heat are dedicated to protecting patients with certain health conditions that require tailored guidance, such as asthma, cardiovascular disease, COPD, chronic kidney disease and end-stage renal disease, diabetes, dementia, multiple sclerosis, pregnancy, and mental health conditions.

"The health impacts of the climate crisis are irrefutable and devastating. They are further magnified for historically marginalized and underserved communities, such as those La Clínica works with, because they live with greater cardiovascular and pulmonary comorbidities, perform physical labor outdoors for their livelihoods, and are subject to systemic racial disparities,” said Dr. Jessie Liu, Family Medicine Physician at La Clínica de La Raza in Oakland, CA. “We find ourselves in unprecedented times in which wildfires may spark and spread overnight. These resources will be useful as a guide for our patients, providers, and clinics to prepare for the increasing wildfire risk for the communities we serve in order to mitigate health impacts."

The toolkit was launched at an event during Boston Globe’s Climate Week. The organizations are sharing the resources and hosting trainings with clinics across the country to ensure they are available to healthcare workers and patients who need it most. The organizations also announced their plans at the Clinton Global Initiative 2022 Meeting to expand their project globally by adapting the toolkit for use in at least three low- and middle-income countries over the next five years.

Americares, which has experience responding to the health needs of underserved communities in the aftermath of disasters, also informed the development of the toolkit.

“We know that low-income, uninsured and underinsured populations need more support after emergencies and this need is accelerating as we experience more intense storms, wildfires and extreme weather,” said Kristin Stevens, Americares Senior Director of Climate and Disaster Resilience. “This project is the first of its kind to focus on preparing safety net health care providers and patients to mitigate the health impacts of climate change.”

The Climate Resilience for Frontline Clinics project takes a patient-centered approach to climate action by prioritizing climate investments for individuals who lack access to care in communities where health disparities are grossly apparent. The project began with a groundbreaking survey in 2021 of over 450 clinic staff from 47 U.S. states and territories to identify knowledge gaps and real-world challenges of caring for patients during and after climate shocks. The data revealed that:

  • 81% of clinic staff said their clinic experienced some kind of disruption due to extreme weather within the past three years
  • Fewer than 20% of clinic staff feel their clinic is “very resilient” in the face of extreme weather
  • 77% of clinic staff say they do not have the knowledge or tools to implement climate change preparedness at their clinic
  • More than 80% want education and training to protect their patients from climate-related events

“The climate crisis is a public health crisis and today’s announcement is an opportunity to place our collective focus on the nation’s most vulnerable patients that are disproportionately exposed to climate risk,” said Dr. Maha Radhakrishnan, Chief Medical Officer at Biogen. “We are proud to be funding this important work as part of our initiative to address climate, health and equity.”

The Climate Resilience for Frontline Clinics toolkit is part of Harvard Chan C-CHANGE’s Climate MD program. The program, led by Dr. Aaron Bernstein and Dr. Renee Salas, focuses on preparing a climate-ready healthcare workforce, working with community health clinics, demonstrating climate impacts to healthcare delivery in medical journals, and changing the national media narrative on climate change.


Press release announcing the project


About Harvard Chan C-CHANGE

The Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health (Harvard Chan C-CHANGE) increases public awareness of the health impacts of climate change and uses science to make it personal, actionable, and urgent. Led by Dr. Aaron Bernstein, the Center leverages Harvard’s cutting-edge research to inform policies, technologies, and products that reduce air pollution and other causes of climate change. By making climate change personal, highlighting solutions, and emphasizing the important role we all play in driving change, Harvard Chan C-CHANGE puts health outcomes at the center of climate actions. To learn more visit https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/c-change/.

About Americares
Americares is a health-focused relief and development organization that saves lives and improves health for people affected by poverty or disaster. Americares provides health programs, medicine, medical supplies, and emergency aid in the United States and worldwide and is a leading nonprofit provider of donated medicine and medical supplies. For more information, visit americares.org

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