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Global warming has wide-reaching healthcare impact, report says

By Steven Ross Johnson
Posted: May 7, 2014 - 6:45 pm ET

(Story updated at 7:30 p.m. ET on May 9, 2014.)

Health experts are hopeful recent reports on climate change will help to draw greater attention to its effects on public health.

This week, the Obama administration released the latest update to the National Climate Assessment, which highlighted the current and potential effects of climate change on the nation, such as how a continuing rise in atmospheric temperatures during the past decade has contributed to an increase in extreme weather events like heat waves, blizzards, floods and drought.

The report detailed how such environmental changes pose a threat to public health, both in their potential to hinder efforts to curb growing rates of chronic disease, and in their contribution to the emergence of outbreaks of infectious diseases not traditionally known as native to the U.S.

“For healthcare providers, it's incredibly difficult, because it's hard to train them to recognize diseases they've never seen before,” said Sabrina McCormick, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University's Milken Institute School of Public Health.

The report found that climate change would exacerbate many chronic conditions, disproportionately affecting low-income populations who already tend to suffer from poorer health because of such social determinants as a lack of stable housing, access to healthy food, or green space to engage in physical activity.

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“It's no longer a looking forward to the future of what will happen,” said Dr. Patricia Finn, chairwoman of the Department of Medicine at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago and current president of the American Thoracic Society. “With changes in climate, and therefore changes in air pollution, and changes that impact our health, you have effects right now on the most vulnerable populations—children, the elderly and those with chronic diseases such as COPD.”

Air pollution is one of the chief environmental factors that negatively affects health. The report projects rising temperatures, coupled with carbon dioxide emissions will create more ground-level ozone, which will lead to more hospital admissions for lung-related conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma, at an estimated health cost of $6.5 billion.

The report noted the effect climate change has already had on the allergy season, which was extended by as many as 27 days in some parts of the country between 1995 and 2011. The number of people diagnosed with asthma also has increased, from 7.3% of the U.S. population to 8.4% during the past decade.

Another concern for medically vulnerable groups has been the increase in the number of extremely hot days over the past decade. High temperatures increase the risk for such health problems as heart attack, stroke and kidney failure. More than 8,000 people in the U.S. died from heat exposure between 1979 and 2003, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with 300 occurring in 2001 alone.

Such changes have the potential to put added financial pressure on the U.S. healthcare system. In a 2011 study published in the journalHealth Affairs, researchers calculated the health costs associated with six types of extreme weather and disease events between 2002 and 2009. These included hurricanes in Florida, floods in North Dakota, California heat waves, outbreaks of West Nile virus in Louisiana, and ozone air pollution nationwide. They found that these events accounted for more than 760,000 encounters with the healthcare system at a cost totaling more than $14 billion.

“Multi-stressor situations, such as impacts on vulnerable populations following natural disasters that also damage the social and physical infrastructure necessary for resilience and emergency response, are particularly important to consider when preparing for the impacts of climate change on human health,” the report stated.

Climate change also poses a challenge for behavioral health providers. The report projects an increase in the number of people diagnosed with post-traumatic stress as a result of experiencing a natural disaster.

McCormick said more extreme weather events will affect healthcare's capability to provide emergency care during a crisis, as it did in 2012 when excessive flooding from Hurricane Sandy caused several hospitals in New York City to shut down, with damages estimated at more than $2 billion.

However, reports such as the recent National Climate Assessment are helping to change the conversation about climate change to one that outlines its effects on a more personal level than in the past, McCormick said.

“The way that we as a nation assess the impact of any environmental stressor is through health,” McCormick said.

Follow Steven Ross Johnson on Twitter: @MHsjohnson

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