Medical Students for a Sustainable Future Educate Next Generation of Physicians on Intersection of Human Health and Climate Change

UMN Medical School students Madi Sundlof, Lauren Vasilakos and Melissa Walsh are part of a new student group working to improve education around climate health.

The World Health Organization calls climate change “the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century.” However, planetary health is only taught at a small number of medical schools, and students may be unprepared to address the impacts of environmental changes on their future patients. A new student group at the University of Minnesota (U of M) Medical School is putting in the work to ensure all future physicians have the knowledge to face the health and equity impacts of climate change head on.

The group, Medical Students for a Sustainable Future (MS4SF) is part of a national network of over 500 medical students. Among them are Madi Sundlof, Lauren Vasilakos and Melissa Walsh, three members of the U of M chapter.

“My undergraduate degree is in environmental studies, so I knew I wanted to do work in the crossover of environment and health,” recalls Sundlof. “Since we saw gaps in our planetary health curriculum, we felt that it was crucial to find ways to improve.”

MS4SF’s most recent project was the 2022-2023 Planetary Health Report Card for the U of M Medical School, to be published on Earth Day. The report card is an internal audit grading medical schools in curriculum, research, community outreach, support for student-led initiatives and sustainability. 

The U of M Medical School received its highest grade in “support for student-led initiatives,” with the report stating there is momentum among students to learn about and advocate for social issues like climate health, and the Medical School is supportive of these efforts. Vasilakos also hopes to see curriculum that deepens environmental health education for the next generation of physicians.

“Students care about this. We’re leading ourselves to this work, and we hope that the Medical School will open doors through our coursework,” explains Vasilakos.

Sundlof agrees, saying the U of M’s Center for Global Health and Social Responsibility offers great resources that could be integrated into the Medical School’s core curriculum in addition to the available climate health elective.

It’s vital that medical students have the proper education around human health implications of climate change, which will directly impact their future practices.

“One of the specialties I’m considering is infectious disease,” Walsh illustrates. “This is something that’s going to change the landscape of what diseases occur where, as more people become climate refugees and pandemics become more common.”

But the students emphasize that this isn’t something we’ll only have to worry about in hundreds of years. The environment influences food security, air quality, cancer rates and even the health of unborn fetuses in our communities right now.

“It touches every patient’s life, whether they’re aware of it or not,” says Sundlof. 

Walsh points out that physicians have a profound role as leaders in improving the health of our communities from the inside out, citing a pediatrician in Flint, MI who was the first to alert the public to the water crisis after noticing elevated lead levels in her patients.

“It’s been stressed in our classes that as physicians and even as medical students, we have political power because we’re experts on health. But it requires everybody in a community to see systemic change and address these sorts of issues,” she states.

Communities of color are disproportionately exposed to pollution, resulting in higher incidences of health consequences like asthma, lead poisoning and heart disease. Vasilakos stresses that at its core, environmental health is an issue of equity.

“Even if we just look at Minneapolis, you experience different exposures to pollution depending on your address, and there’s also policy related to that,” she notes. “There’s a lot of green spaces that have been intentionally built or maintained around the lakes, but if you go to North Minneapolis, there’s a lot of industry and very minimal green space. That didn’t just happen, it was historical.”

On April 22, MS4SF is hosting an environmental justice tour in North Minneapolis for health professionals and students. In partnership with Community Members for Environmental Justice, the tour will expose participants to some of the most persistent environmental health problems in low income and communities of color in Minnesota. Learn more and sign up to participate.