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  • Writer's pictureEmory DPT Sustainability

Dr. Rebecca Philipsborn, MD: Climate Change and Child Health - A Pediatrician’s Perspective

By Eric Holshouser, SPT, PE

Dr. Rebecca Philipsborn is an assistant professor with Emory’s Department of Pediatrics and Emory Global Health Institute. She is the co-author of Climate Change and Global Child Health with Dr. Kevin Chan in the Journal Pediatrics which draws attention to the disproportionate impact of climate change on children in low-resource settings. She was more recently a contributor to the Global Climate Action Summit. Here, she discusses these issues in further detail with Physical Therapy student Eric Holshouser, class of 2021.

Dr. Philipsborn completed medical school and residency in pediatrics (global health track) at Emory University. She earned a Master’s in Public Administration (MPA) from Columbia University and a Bachelor’s in English from Princeton University.

Her appreciation of the rich natural environment of her native state of Alabama and her belief that all children should have the opportunity to thrive inspire her current work on climate change and global child health.

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Q: As a pediatrician, what message do you think other healthcare professionals need to hear with regards to climate change?

Healthcare professionals have a role to play in adaptation and mitigation of climate change. We can think about sustainability in our practices and our personal lives. We are also trusted members of the community who can spread the message that climate change is a critical issue for health right now.

Q: How do you think we can spread that message?

I think the message is picking up momentum. We can keep advocating with and on behalf of our patients to our communities, to our places of practice, and to policy makers. We need to be familiar with climate-health impacts to provide the best possible patient care. Providers know well the concepts of social and environmental determinants of health and how these affect everything from differential diagnosis to implementation of the plan of care. We need to integrate climate into that discussion.

Q: Building off your article and research, what potential impact do you hope to have?

Climate change will permeate all the elements of academic medicine – teaching, research, and clinical care- and there’s work to be done in all of these areas. Right now, I’m thinking a lot about the potential impacts of climate and climate-related migration on the landscape of global child health, but also about the enormous opportunity there. How can we build resilience, learn more, and use climate projections to save lives? I’m also thinking about educating residents to be prepared for anticipated climate-health impacts. Perhaps most concretely, as a pediatrician, I hope to encourage decision-makers to always consider the children in their efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Q: Can you say a little bit more about climate change and health professions education?

Recently, I participated in Emory’s Piedmont Project faculty workshop. Right now, sustainability and climate change are not really a part of clinical medical education, but they could be. Climate change will have physical and psychological impacts on patients and will pose challenges (and opportunities) for the way we deliver health care. Healthcare professionals need to be prepared.

Q: What can healthcare professionals do to steer our society in the right direction?

Many see our generation as the last that will have the opportunity to do so…to steer us towards net zero emissions and away from the tipping point of “business as usual” that is destroying the health of our planet and people. We can advocate and emphasize the health implications of climate change for our patients and the costs associated with these implications. All of us need to advocate for the healthcare industry and our institutions to integrate sustainable practices – applying the concept of “First, do no harm” to the entire cycle of healthcare. Our voices are stronger together.

Q: What opportunities do you see for the physical therapy profession to both prevent climate change and address issues related to health caused by climate change?

The physical therapy program at Emory is a great example of leadership in this arena. You may answer this better than I could! But, physical therapists may consider topics like the built environment and urban design, the need for plenty of green and child-friendly spaces where kids can play, less vehicle reliance and associated sedentary time and streetscapes that can reduce the risk of child injury—all have mitigation potential as well as health co-benefits.

This interview was conducted and edited by Eric Holshouser, Emory University SPT.

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