New project seeks to build climate resilience at community health clinics

Harvard University is spearheading a new project to create a first-of-its-kind clinical framework focused on protecting the ability of safety-net clinics to provide care for patients during and after a climate-related disaster.

The university’s Center for Climate Health and Global Environment has partnered with Cambridge, Mass.,-based biotechnology firm Biogen and global relief and development organization Americares on a multi-year pilot program to develop a climate resilience toolkit for community health clinics.

The toolkit is similar to previous ones developed by the federal government and several states designed to ensure hospital facilities are better prepared to handle potential operational disruptions caused by disasters like flooding or power outages, according to Dr. Aaron Bernstein, interim director of C-CHANGE at Harvard.

But Bernstein felt the focus on making healthcare facilities more resilient to natural disasters needed to shift toward developing resources that could prevent harm to people who are unable to get to care during those emergencies.

“For many Americans, their primary contact with healthcare is at a community health clinic, not at a hospital — to prevent harm, we can’t rely on the relationships people may have with hospitals where they may occasionally have a procedure,” Bernstein said. “So, it doesn’t make sense to try and figure out a plan to deploy resources through hospitals because they don’t necessarily have the regular contact with individuals at risk.”

Nine community health centers in California, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Texas will participate in the project. The goal will be to create a climate resilience toolkit for clinics that will include developing screening checklists for clinicians to assess patients’ vulnerability to climate change.

Other components of the toolkit will involve disease management plans to help patients and providers better prepare for extreme weather events like heatwaves, which have become more frequent over the past two decades and are responsible each year for more deaths than all other extreme weather incidents combined.

Participating clinics will provide information on challenges and opportunities for interventions for their patient populations. Bernstein said the hope is that the project can be scaled up to include up to 150 clinics over the next three years.

The project is the latest of a series of efforts to address the health threat caused by climate change.

Several of the country’s largest health systems have committed to going carbon neutral over the next few years, with Kaiser Permanente becoming the first to reach that goal last September.

That same month, a group of medical educators led by Bernstein introduced a proposal to create the first medical education curriculum designed to prepare students for addressing the effects of climate change on care delivery.