Healthy humans for a healthy planet

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The climate crisis is the gravest threat to human health today, and in its training programs UdeM’s Faculty of Medicine is working to include issues related to global warming.

Since 2021, the climate crisis and everything connected with it-from sustainable health-care systems to zoonoses, eco-anxiety, air pollution and the effect of heat waves on the cardiovascular system-have figured prominently in Université de Montréal’s Doctor of Medicine programs. New theory courses have been created, new learning objectives have been set, and most recently some 30 specific competencies related to planetary health have been added.

With the changes now underway, UdeM Faculty of Medicine is on track to becoming one of the world’s leading institutions for academic and clinical activities related to climate change and human health. Currently, fewer than 15 per cent of medical schools include these concepts in their undergraduate curricula, according to a 2019-2020 survey of 2,800 medical schools in some 100 countries by the International Federation of Medical Students Associations.

"Very few universities-and none in Canada-offer a comprehensive curriculum in climate change and planetary health. UdeM’s Faculty of Medicine has everything it takes to become a leader in socially responsible medical education in Quebec and in the French-speaking world. We’re the medical school that is most active in the Réseau d’action en santé durable du Québec." - Éric Notebaert

Dr. Éric Notebaert, an emergency physician and associate clinical professor in UdeM’s Department of Family Medicine and Emergency Medicine, sees an urgent need to incorporate the human health impacts of the climate crisis into the Faculty’s curriculum. "The physicians of the future are asking for information and training about this," he said. With the COP15 conference ongoing in Montreal, he stressed how vital it is to protect biodiversity, since "depleting it would clearly cause a deterioration in global health."

30 years on enviromental issues

Over the past 30 years, Notebaert has been active on many environmental issues in Quebec, from the closure of asbestos mines to the ’greening’ of hospitals, the abandonment of nuclear power, the promotion of active transportation and the fight against pesticides. He heads the sustainable health committee of Médecins francophones du Canada and is vice-president of the Association québécoise des médecins pour l’environnement.

Notebaert is currently working on updating UdeM’s medical programs. He coordinates the medical faculty’s climate crisis and planetary health task force, which was created last spring to prepare the introduction of climate issues into student and faculty training reduce the environmental footprint of the faculty’s teaching facilities.

In addition to Notebaert, the task force includes four other members of the Department of Family and Emergency Medicine: Dr. Judy Morris, Dr. Bernard Mathieu, Dr. Claudel Pétrin-Desrosiers and student Mélody Porlier.

A survey of faculty

To find facilitators and identify barriers to incorporating climate change and planetary health into medical courses, the department conducted a survey of its faculty in collaboration with Francine Tedongmeza, a master’s student in environmental and occupational health at UdeM’s School of Public Health.

They found that the majority of faculty believe environmental issues are worth teaching but feel ill-equipped to do so. The same applies to including concepts such as environmental footprint and carbon neutrality in their practice: most would like to acquire more knowledge in these areas.

Already, the faculty’s continuing professional development unit has scheduled several training courses.

"We want the Faculty of Medicine to be in step with best practices in the world when it comes to planetary health, so that its members can teach the health impacts of climate change, do research, and of course be change agents in their own milieux," said Notebaert.