Health and Climate Change is Theme of Bridges to Access Conference

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Health and Climate Change is Theme of Bridges to Access Conference

Understanding the effects of climate change on health is the focus of this year’s Bridges to Access Conference, a student-led event at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. The virtual conference is scheduled for Feb. 11-12.

“There is widespread consensus among the health professionals leading our most prominent medical journals that the greatest threat to our health right now is inaction on climate change,” said OU College of Medicine student Alice Moon, chair of this year’s conference. “Not only does climate change directly impact our health, but it can contribute to worsening health disparities globally and nationally.

“At the heart of Bridges to Access is the mission to improve healthcare disparities through education and empowerment,” Moon added. “Unfortunately, climate change will have the greatest impact on those communities that already suffer healthcare disparities or lack sufficient resources or autonomy to respond. These include vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, ethnic minorities, poorer communities, and those with chronic disease.”

This is the 15th year for the Bridges to Access Conference. It is organized by the OU Community Health Alliance, an organization of OU College of Medicine students in cooperation with students from the other six colleges at the OU Health Sciences Center. Although the conference is geared toward health professional students, anyone can attend, and the event is free. The virtual conference runs from 2:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Feb. 11 and from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Feb. 12. For more information about speakers and to register, visit Conference details are subject to change with updated COVID-19 protocols.

In 2015, the World Health Organization declared climate change the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century. Changing global temperatures have already affected health. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, heat-related deaths among people over 65 have increased by more than 50% in the past 20 years. Higher temperatures have led to increased dehydration, loss of kidney function, skin cancers, tropical infections, cardiovascular and pulmonary disease, pregnancy complications, and more. Extreme weather events also have taken a toll.

“Climate change is a health crisis in the most fundamental way — humans are a product of their environment, and when the environment suffers, so too will the health of its beneficiaries,” Moon said. “For example, if air quality is poor, lung conditions are exacerbated and we will see higher rates of asthma problems in the ER. If our soil and crops are contaminated or have decreased yields due to temperature, we will have poorer nutrition and our efforts to reduce under-nutrition globally will be hampered.”

Three nationally known keynote speakers will give presentations at this year’s conference. Robert W. Haley, M.D., Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, will present “The Science of Climate Change.” Elena Craft, Ph.D., Senior Director of Climate and Health at the Environmental Defense Fund, will present “The Climate Vulnerability Index.” Lisa Doggett, M.D., MPH, senior medical director for HGS Population Health Management Solutions/AxisPoint Health, will speak on “Mobilizing for Change: How to Be an Effective Advocate.”

Many other speakers will present breakout sessions on topics including antibiotic resistance and animal agriculture, vector-borne diseases, carcinogen increases, and solar energy. Several sessions are specific to Oklahoma’s oil and gas economy and expansive, car-based urban layout. The conference will end with an awards ceremony, including the presentation of the R. Murali Krishna, M.D. Community Service Award, given annually to a senior health professional student who has exhibited passion and dedication to community service during his or her academic career.

Moon said the conference aims not only to help students understand the extent to which climate change affects patients’ health, but to inspire them to address the problem.

“People can have a tendency to view climate change as abstract and looming, but we want to show students its current impacts through the lens of their professional practice so they can begin taking steps immediately to address these issues in their workplaces, their communities and their homes,” she said. “Research shows that how we frame the climate crisis matters. Highlighting its effects on health, as well as its impact as a public health issue, change the way the public thinks about it. People are more willing to change their behavior and advocate for policy change when they understand the health effects that ripple from it. So when the healthcare community communicates with their patients and the public about the health impacts of climate change, they can help shape the cultural conversation and move us forward.”