How to Prepare Nurses to Advance Health Equity Amid Climate Change

Climate Change, Health and Social Justice course

Alex Kowalewski, left, and Finn Black, right, discuss their team project in the "Climate Change, Health and Social Justice" course. (Elisabeth Fall Photography)

Orlando Harris, PhD, MPH, FNP, knows first-hand climate change’s impacts on health. As an HIV researcher who leads on-the-ground work in the Caribbean, he has seen how hurricanes have devastated that part of the world.

But the idea for creating a new course dedicated to the intersection of climate change and health came from nursing students.

“Our students are asking for more content on the impacts of climate change and other extreme weather events on health so they know how to best help their patients,” Harris said. “Climate change and global warming cause extreme weather events and impact air quality, water, food production, industry, economic and political stability. The impacts reach into every area of life.”

Harris, an assistant professor at the UCSF School of Nursing, professor Susan Chapman, PhD, MPH, RN, and doctoral student Ashley Moore MS, RN, have created the new course “Climate Change, Health and Social Justice” that focuses on climate change and how it impacts health, equity and social issues like environmental, economic and racial justice. Launched this past spring with support from a $4,000 UCSF Innovations Grant, the course is open to students in the School of Nursing as well as the schools of Dentistry, Medicine and Pharmacy.

Given climate change’s impact on health now and into the future, nurses and other medical professionals need to see the whole picture to properly treat patients, Chapman said.

“This is one of the major — if not the major — health policy and public health issue today,” said Chapman. “In the course, we show how all sorts of climate change events link to health, heath outcomes and inequities. There are impacts on vulnerable populations in terms of where they live, what they’re breathing and what they’re surrounded by.”

Leveraging Social Media to Build Awareness

Over 10 weeks this past spring quarter, students explored topics like climate change’s impacts on health, economics, vulnerable communities, tribal communities, environmental racism, urban renewal and infrastructure. They also examined the intersection of climate change on vulnerable women and children; how extreme weather impacts sexual and gender minority health; food, water and housing insecurity; political and corporate accountability in terms of climate change; and how climate change relates to violence and the police state.

Instead of having students write papers to present to the class, which keeps that work inside the classroom, students created public messages through infographics and videos that took their research and translated it into actionable messages for the general public through social media platforms like Instagram and Tik Tok.

Read the full story in our Science of Caring online publication.