Skip to main content
article atm-icon bar bell bio cancel-o cancel ch-icon crisis-color crisis cs-icon doc-icon down-angle down-arrow-o down-triangle download email-small email external facebook googleplus hamburger image-icon info-o info instagram left-angle-o left-angle left-arrow-2 left-arrow linkedin loader menu minus-o pdf-icon pencil photography pinterest play-icon plus-o press right-angle-o right-angle right-arrow-o right-arrow right-diag-arrow rss search tags time twitter up-arrow-o videos

Suggested Content

Protecting Patients During U.S. Heat Waves This Summer

  • June 20, 2024
  • Climate Change
  • Crystal Decuir, chief nursing officer for SWLA Center for Health Services (right) shows Americares Vice President of U.S. Programs Saqi Maleque Cho patient heat education materials in the lobby of the Lafayette, La., clinic. (Photo by Mike Demas/Americares).

By the first day of summer, 135 million people in the United States and Canada are expected to face a life-threatening heat wave that will blanket the region from the Midwest to the Atlantic. Heat is the No. 1 weather-related killer in the U.S.; last year the Department of Health and Human Services estimated more than 2,300 people died due to heat-related illness.

“Heat places a tremendous burden on the body,” says Americares Deputy Medical Officer Adam Schwartz, M.D. “In extreme temperatures, the body can gain heat faster than it can cool itself, and heat exhaustion can quickly turn into heat stroke, which is a real and deadly risk. The very old and very young are at higher risk, as are those with chronic health conditions. But in extreme heat, anyone can be vulnerable.”   

That was the case last Fourth of July when one clinic in southern Louisiana sent four patients overcome by heat to the hospital by ambulance in a single day. “They ranged from mid 20’s to patients 70 years old, even pediatric patients. So, it was not one age-specific class,” says Crystal Decuir, chief nursing officer at SWLA Center for Health Services, in Lafayette, La. “That’s when we realized that this is truly an issue.”

The climate crisis disproportionately threatens the health of people who have less control over their heat exposure because they work outdoors or cannot afford air conditioning.  

Americares provides no-cost, online resources for free and charitable clinics and community health centers that provide care to millions of people living with low-incomes, including the uninsured. These resources include a Climate Resilience for Frontline Clinics Toolkit tailored for safety-net clinics. Americares heat toolkit tip sheets are available in English and Spanish and include specialized advice for patients with cardiovascular disease, COPD, dementia, diabetes, kidney disease, mental health disorders, multiple sclerosis and pregnancy. The toolkit was created in 2022 with support from Biogen.

Willona Bertrand, a nurse practitioner at the Eunice Community Health Center waters her garden outside her home in Eunice, Louisiana on Thurs. April 27, 2023 (Photo/Mike Demas).

And this summer, for the first time, more than 40 clinics across the U.S. are creating heat-health action plans to connect patients with community resources that will keep them safe when temperatures rise. Americares and the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (Harvard Chan C-CHANGE), are helping clinics to create plans that reduce patients’ exposure to extreme heat. The Climate Health Equity for Community Clinics Program, supported by Johnson & Johnson, aims to reach 100 U.S. clinics by 2025. Find more climate-related resources on Americares website.

For its Louisiana communities, SWLA’s heat-health action plan includes patient education starting in early spring and connecting patients at increased risk from extreme heat with local organizations that provide free fans and defray the cost of increased energy bills. 

Everyone should make a plan for hot days, says Schwartz: As much as possible limit your time outdoors, especially in the middle of the day when temperatures are highest, and the sun is most intense. If you don’t have access to air conditioning, seek out a cooling center or public space such as a library where you can spend time. Be sure to drink plenty of cool fluids to stay hydrated — sweat is a key part of your body’s natural cooling system. If you must work outside, wear lightweight clothing, reduce your physical effort, seek out shade, stay hydrated and take breaks in cool places such as indoors or in vehicles with air conditioning.