April 2020 Champion: Joel Charles

Dr. Joel Charles

Family Medicine specialist in Soldiers Grove WI

If the coronavirus pandemic tells us anything about the climate crisis, it’s that to make individual patients well, doctors also need to prescribe a treatment for society.

Joel Charles lives that principle in his community, Soldiers Grove, a town in rural southwestern Wisconsin. A physician with a master’s degree in public health, Dr. Charles practices family medicine. But a rural doctor is called upon to do everything, and today, everything includes responding to COVID-19.

Dr. Charles serves as lead clinician on COVID-19 planning for the local critical access hospital. Although at this writing the pandemic has largely spared his community,  he puts his MPH to use helping implement a data-driven response.  Dr. Charles’ efforts to be helpful in statewide COVID-19 planning has put him in a position to draw the connection between COVID-19 and climate change for Wisconsin health leaders and elected officials.

It’s a study in agility for now and the future. “COVID-19 has shown that our health systems are designed to perform under a stable environment and demand,” Dr. Charles says. “Climate change causes instability. For the most part, American health systems have barely begun to adapt to climate disruption from a health care delivery perspective.”

Dr. Charles’ approach grows out of his background, growing up in Green Bay, WI, in a low-income ethnically diverse community, but being supported by quality public education, including scholarships through his MD and MPH at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In medical school, considering the advantages he had been given, Dr. Charles viewed climate advocacy as a way of giving back. This became more compelling when his residency in Santa Rosa, California, was hit by the Tubbs fire that burned significant portions of the city. The need to advocate became personal when the birth of his son, Finn, coincided with devastating flooding in his Wisconsin community. He felt responsible to advocate for the future of his community in general and for his newborn son in particular.

The work continues in this time of coronavirus and climate change. Dr. Charles is active in Wisconsin Health Professionals for Climate Action as one way to advocate for progress among health system leaders and public officials. He’s particularly interested in getting health systems and their communities to prepare for local impacts of climate change while cutting their carbon emissions, “It’s right for our patients and it makes business sense.”

Unlike the economic plunge during COVID-19, fighting climate change can create prosperity, Dr. Charles says. “Replacing fossil fuels with clean energy will clean the air and save lives,” he says. “We will be healthier and wealthier immediately. That just can’t be overlooked.”