Half of U.S. doctors alarmed about health effects of climate change

Among the health care providers present for the launch of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health in Washington, D.C., were Hardin physicians Lori and Rob Byron.

Rob Byron, an internist retired from the Indian Health Service who nowadays divides his time between St. Vincent Healthcare in Billings and Bighorn Valley Health Center in Hardin, spoke during the event as part of a six-member panel announcing the new movement.

During his brief remarks, Byron — filling in for another presenter whose flight was cancelled by a snowstorm — said a “marked increase” in Montana wildfires has led him to urge his patients suffering such diseases as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) to spend more time indoors during summer and early fall months.

“There’s an increased likelihood of hospitalization” following a flare-up of their diseases, Byron said.

Lori Byron said that physicians followed up their announcement by fanning across Capitol Hill out to lobby congressional staffers.

Congressional aides “were impressed with the number” of physicians who’ve joined the consortium, she said. “People kind of raised their eyebrows when they heard that number.”

Physician groups are taking action to ensure that studies aren’t immediately shelved, she said. The American Public Health Association has declared 2017 the Year of Climate Change and Health, taking to social media to encourage people to tell their health-related stories.

“The voices of America’s medical societies have the potential to help reframe the dialogue — putting human health and well-being front and center in the conversation,” the consortium states on its website, www.medsocietiesforclimatehealth.org. “Many indicated their own personal interest and nearly all indicated they would like to see their societies educate policymakers about these harms and risks.”

“We have felt this is a public health issue for some time now,” Rob Byron said Friday. “Doctors and public health workers have been reluctant to speak up, so it was good to be among others who feel this is important.”

Almost all of the 11 professional medical societies that are part of the new consortium “have very strong statements on climate,” he said, “but up until now statements have been the extent of it.”

The big work is still to come, he said. “A lot of people don’t see climate change as an important issue, so we hope to stir people to action. It’s not about Montana or the U.S., and it’s not about me or you. This is everybody worldwide, and now is the time to do something before it gets too late.”

His wife, a pediatrician, said that parents of children with asthma “no longer want their children to be handed an inhaler and told, ‘Take this.’ They want to get involved politically.”

Another consortium presenter, Molly Rauch, policy director for the million-member Moms Clean Air Force, said parents “are hungry for the information” the consortium can provide them.

“We want to know how climate change affects our families, even if there is no prescription you can offer us,” she said. “By launching this consortium and sharing information with parents, you are providing information we want and helping moms and dads everywhere become better parents.”