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Climate Change and Health in LA County: Opportunities for Physician Intervention

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As the impacts of climate change continue to intensify across Los Angeles County, clinicians can expect an exacerbation of many patient health problems ranging from respiratory illness to infectious diseases. Residents of LA County are especially vulnerable to health risks associated with increasing extreme heat events, declining air quality, longer and more intense wildfire seasons, expanding habitats of vectors, and conditions that increase the risk of water and food-borne disease. One acute example of the burden climate change places on regional health is the 2006 record-breaking heat wave which resulted in over 650 excess deaths across California. Certain populations within LA County, such as low-income communities, are particularly at risk and may require additional care and resources to protect their health.

This article will summarize the latest science on health risks associated with different aspects of climate change, describe the populations in LA County most likely to be impacted, and offer specific strategies that clinicians can use to protect the health of their patients from the impacts of climate change. The majority of recommendations included in this article were selected from the Public Health Institute’s A Physician’s Guide to Climate Change, Health, and Equity as they address the health impacts of climate change that are projected to be most harmful to LA County residents.

Extreme Heat

Extreme heat poses a greater threat to human health in the United States than floods, storms, and lightning combined. Extreme heat increases cases of heat-related illness and death and exacerbates chronic illnesses. Residents in the Los Angeles area are especially at risk of heat-related illness, as the region is expected to warm 4°F by mid-century and the number of heat days (when temperatures are over 95°F) is expected to triple in coastal areas and central Los Angeles and nearly quadruple in the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys.

What Clinicians Can Do

Research shows that many who are especially vulnerable to extreme heat are unaware of their risk. Clinicians are in a unique position to educate patients who are at higher risk of the dangers of extreme heat and how to protect themselves.

  • Recommend strategies for staying cool during extreme heat events such as using air conditioners, going to cooling centers and other places with air conditioning, limiting outdoor activities, and using cool water for showers or baths (see DPH Stay Healthy in the Heat brochure).
    • Cooling centers are official buildings such as libraries, senior centers, and community centers that are open for extended hours during heat waves; a full list can be found here.
  • Advise on the importance of adequate hydration.
  • Inform patients about the risks of some medications and heat.
    • Certain medications increase the risk of heat illness7 (e.g. psychotropic medications, diuretics, antihistamines, benzodiazepines, and some medications for Parkinson’s disease).
    • Medications, including insulin, may lose their effectiveness if subject to very high temperatures. Patients can check package inserts about how high temperatures affect their medicine.  Patients can be advised to not keep medicines in direct sunlight or in a hot car.
  • Encourage healthy patients to check in on vulnerable family, friends, and neighbors during extreme heat events, and help vulnerable patients to access the resources they need to prepare for and cope with extreme heat.

Read more about the impacts of climate change on LA County via the Rx for Prevention website.

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