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Environmental Education for Physicians and other Healthcare Providers

As our environment continues to be degraded, impacting human health, physicians and other healthcare providers need to be knowledgeable of the connections between the environment and health. Often considered an integrative approach to medical care, the many health benefits associated with time in nature make it a more mainstream option for health improvement and disease prevention.

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Hoh Rain Forest Olympic National Park Photo by Mark Ellison

An article in the February 2013 issue of the journal Academic Medicine, “Environment, Biodiversity and the Education of the Physician of the Future“(Gomez, Balsari, Nusbaum, Heerboth & Lemery, 2013), convincingly makes an argument for the need to have environmental education included in the curriculum of medical school programs. Physicians can serve an important role educating the public about the connections between a healthy environment and personal health, but receive little education on the environment in medical school. The authors argue that environmental education standards are needed for the physician of the future.

Gomez et al. state that the importance of physicians serving as environmental educators will become greater because of escalating pressure on the Earth’s ecosystems that are causing environmental degradation, climate change and loss of biodiversity, all negatively impacting human health. Loss of plant diversity is reducing natural medicinal repositories, which will limit new discoveries. Unfortunately, the populations disproportionately impacted by ecological change are those already vulnerable through poverty, geography and other factors. This environmental injustice will wreak havoc on populations with little power to prevent it.

Research is revealing that contact with nature offers many physical and mental benefits that physicians and other healthcare providers can use as treatment options to help patients dealing with symptoms related to stress, coping with disease, and even disease prevention. To do this, they will need a clear understanding of the benefits to appropriately provide a “green prescription”. In addition to physicians, nurses, occupational therapists, physical therapists and other healthcare providers can benefit from more emphasis on environmental education in the degree programs that prepare these professionals, as well as through continuing education while on the job.

For the environment to be protected, and utilized more effectively for improved public health, healthcare professionals must be part of the conversation. Providing environmental education in the degree programs that prepare these professionals is a critical first step.

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