Stamford, Conn. — Sept. 19, 2023 — Americares and the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (Harvard Chan C-CHANGE), today announced health clinics in Arizona, Florida and Louisiana will pilot a program to protect the most vulnerable patients from the health impacts of climate change, including extreme heat.
The Climate Health Equity for Community Clinics Program, supported by Johnson & Johnson, will start with 10 clinics and then expand across the country with a goal of bolstering climate resilience in 100 free and charitable clinics and community health centers by 2025. The details were announced during a Climate Week NYC panel discussion “Climate Change and Health Equity: The Imperative for Community-Based Resilience.”
The program’s initial focus is on extreme heat. Heat was the No. 1 cause of weather-related deaths in the U.S. in 2022, according to the National Weather Service, and many communities across the globe experienced record-breaking heat this past summer. The threat of extreme heat is increasing as the heat season extends. Heat waves are becoming longer in duration, more intense and more frequent—putting lives at risk and contributing to serious health issues, including heat stroke and increased risk of stroke and heart attacks.
“The health threats posed by extreme heat are only worsening due to climate change and we must focus on solutions that extend beyond and complement the care provided in the exam room,” said Americares Senior Vice President of Programs and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Julie Varughese. “Clinics that serve uninsured and low-income communities are uniquely positioned to support the people at highest risk of heat-related health emergencies because of the trust they’ve built with vulnerable patients, their deep knowledge of those patients’ unique circumstances and their strong community partnerships.”
Participating clinics will use an online assessment tool that will be developed by Americares and Harvard Chan C-CHANGE to generate customized heat action plans. The assessment will pose a series of questions to clinic staff and use those responses to generate a tailored plan to help clinics prepare for and protect their patients’ health from extreme temperatures. The project will help health care providers better manage patient care as it aims to prevent heat-related illness when vulnerable patients are most in danger.
The plan will recommend practical evidence-based actions clinic staff can take, such as notifying patients when they need to take precautions or helping patients access air conditioning or receive wellness checks from partner organizations that already make home visits. The online assessment tool will be adapted in the future to generate action plans for other climate-related health risks.
“Too often, I care for patients who are suffering from heat-related health emergencies that could have been prevented,” said Dr. Caleb Dresser, director of healthcare solutions at Harvard Chan C-CHANGE and an emergency room physician. “With this pilot project, we’ll work with clinics to develop interventions and share resources so they can better partner with their communities and prevent heat-related illness from harming their most vulnerable patients. We’re excited to learn from the 10 clinics involved about what works and what doesn’t so we can improve how we implement this program across the country to better protect people from extreme heat.”
The program, funded by Johnson & Johnson, began with a needs assessment survey to gauge health care providers’ knowledge of climate risks and the effects on health, as well as their interest level in addressing these challenges with underserved populations. Americares and Harvard Chan C-CHANGE surveyed nearly 300 health providers working in safety net clinics across the country between November 2022 and January 2023. Of those, nearly 90 percent said addressing extreme heat risks for patients is necessary for better health outcomes, and 75 percent said they could provide better care if they knew more about how climate influences health.
“We’ve had patients come in and say, ‘I just about passed out on my job. I thought I was having a heart attack,’ and we find out they were suffering from heat exhaustion,” said Dr. Susan Hook, a family nurse practitioner, founder and executive director of Samaritan Health and Wellness Center, Inc., in Cape Coral, Fla., one of the pilot clinics. “As health care providers, we need to be aware of everyone’s situation outside of the clinic and have a heat action plan to support our patients. ‘Are they working outside?’ ‘Can they afford air conditioning, or will they try to tough it out?’ You have to give people the knowledge to take care of themselves in this heat. They look to us for answers.”
The pilot clinics were selected based on extreme temperatures in those states and the percentage of racial and ethnic groups with documented health disparities and socioeconomic factors, including the percentage of residents who are unemployed, without health insurance or low-income, among other factors.
“Johnson & Johnson has a long track record of supporting health workers and taking climate action,” said Johnson & Johnson Chief Sustainability Officer Paulette Frank. “In line with these long-standing commitments, we are excited about the Climate Health Equity for Community Clinics Program, which will use insights from diverse communities across the U.S. to ensure patients in those communities receive the care they need, when they need it most.”
The Climate Health Equity for Community Clinics Program announced last year is the latest collaboration from Americares and Harvard Chan C-CHANGE to improve the health of the 32 million uninsured, underinsured and low-income individuals in the United States who rely on free and charitable clinics and community health centers for health care. Over the past year, they launched a groundbreaking Climate Resilience for Frontline Clinics Toolkit to help patients, providers and administrators mitigate the health impacts of extreme weather and began piloting a heat alert system with Climate Central to warn health care providers of dangerous heatwaves. Going forward, Americares and Harvard Chan C-CHANGE plan to adapt the toolkit for use globally in at least three low- and middle-income countries.
Americares helps communities prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters; increase accessibility, availability, affordability and acceptability of medicine and medical supplies; and improve and expand health services, prevent disease and promote good health. In the United States, Americares responds to emergencies and provides health facilities serving low-income and uninsured patients the resources they need to provide accessible health services and support equitable health outcomes. Americares U.S. Programs support nearly 1,000 free clinics and community health centers nationwide with medicine and medical supplies, education, operational support, funding, training and innovations in health care delivery.
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