More frequent heatwaves, intense hurricanes, air pollution, insect-borne disease and other challenges increasingly threaten health. Families living in areas especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change are among the most at risk.
Americares, the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (Harvard Chan C-CHANGE) and Biogen are working together to protect the health of families before disaster strikes. In 2021 we launched a groundbreaking project to help community health clinics serving low-income and uninsured patients prepare for the most frequent climate threats, buffer risks to the patients they serve and improve health outcomes. Biogen is also providing financial support to the project as part of its Healthy Climate, Healthy Lives™ commitment to addressing the interrelated challenges of climate and health.
“The families most affected by climate change often have the fewest resources and the least ability to adapt in times of crisis,” said Americares Associate Director of Emergency Preparedness Mariel Fonteyn. “This project is about equity. It’s the first of its kind to focus on safety net clinics and the unique needs of low-income families disproportionately affected by climate change.”
Extreme weather events such as major hurricanes and ice storms can lead to prolonged power outages, which can leave patients without needed medications and shutter medical facilities and pharmacies for days, or even weeks.
“In areas prone to climate-related disasters, clinic closures can happen multiple times per year, which can have significant and long-term health effects.”
The pilot project launched with nine partner organizations in four states: California, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Texas. All of the clinics have experienced recurring emergencies due to climate change. Participating clinics provide information on knowledge gaps, real-world challenges, and opportunities for interventions for their patient populations.
“While climate resiliency is often about strengthening buildings, what makes our project so unique is our focus on the people inside those buildings,” said Dr. Aaron Bernstein, interim director of Harvard Chan C-CHANGE. “We aim to find new ways to protect people most at risk from the climate crisis and advance health equity.”
Clinics in the pilot phase will contribute to the creation of a Climate Resilient Clinics Toolkit, which will be made available to safety net clinics at risk of climate-related disasters. The toolkit will include:
“We are developing core tools and resources that will transform how we safeguard patients living in regions prone to flooding, extreme heat, and severe storms,” said Mariel Fonteyn.
The project will expand across the country and, eventually, internationally, with up to 150 clinics benefitting.
Biogen Chief Medical Officer Maha Radhakrishnan, M.D.
The Free Clinic of Simi Valley in Southern California provides critical medical care to low-income families. Its patients live with the intensifying effects of climate change, including heat and drought.
Lestonnac Free Clinic, based in Orange County, Calif., has 13 clinic sites throughout Southern California. In 2020, due to the numerous wildfires, they saw a significant increase in patients coming into the clinic for upper respiratory issues and breathing problems due to the fires.
Cambridge Health Alliance works in two safety net community hospitals and multiple primary care centers that serve several diverse communities north of Boston. Its patients are at high risk of heat-related illnesses due to urban heat-island effects, and their neighborhoods are at high risk of flooding due to rising sea levels and worsening storms.
The Community Care Clinic of Dare in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. In addition to the frequent and intensifying hurricanes that have been occurring, the clinic and patients face challenges from ongoing flooding caused by rising sea levels and increasing temperatures that have a disproportionate effect on their patients who often work outdoors.
Kintegra Health, a community health center in North Carolina with over 30 sites. The sites and patients face significant issues from frequent flooding washing out roads and access to healthcare, as well as deteriorating infrastructure, particularly in the rural areas.
The North Carolina Association of Free and Charitable Clinics (NCAFCC) supports 70 free and charitable clinics and pharmacies in the state by coordinating disaster response activities and supporting clinics as they provide healthcare for medically underserved North Carolinians. NCAFCC is feeling the effects of climate change and staff are called on to assist member clinics as climate change has acute and long-term effects on patient care and clinic operations.
Matagorda Episcopal Health Outreach Program (MEHOP) provides critical health and behavioral health services for Matagorda County on the east coast of Texas. The facility was evacuated during Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and had many patients and staff members affected by the recent deep freeze. MEHOP is in a rural, underserved area with significant and growing challenges around access to healthcare, degrading infrastructure, and insufficient funds to rebuild after disasters.
San José Clinic, a charity clinic in Houston, Texas, serves patients directly impacted by Hurricane Harvey and the recent winter storm and related power outages.
Ubi Caritas, a free clinic in Beaumont, Texas, serves communities impacted by multiple hurricanes.