Promoting planetary health: U-M Medical School students, administrators partner on climate issues

June 9, 2022  //  FOUND IN: Strategy & Leadership, ,

A group of medical students is urging the U-M Medical School (UMMS) to confront climate change head on.

With faculty and institutional support, the student organization White Coats for Planetary Health (WCPH) is working to focus attention on climate change — and its implications for health — across the institution.

Already making change

Formed in 2019 and formalized in 2021, WCPH has seen several successes over the last year.

The group is behind a new elective, Climate Change in Human Health, which launched during the COVID-19 pandemic and is attracting a growing number of students. They’ve also started a journal club focused on planetary health publications and are actively engaged in the broader U-M Carbon Neutrality initiative.

“The consensus among our group is that, in general, there is a gap in medical education regarding the impacts of planetary health on human health,” said third-year student Christian Mackey, M.P.H., one of the WCPH leaders. “But there is a clear link between the two, and it is going to increasingly impact our patients and the health care system we’re preparing to enter.”

Joining forces

Most recently, at the behest of WCPH, UMMS joined a growing number of medical schools around the world participating in the Planetary Health Report Card initiative.

Designed specifically for health professional schools, the program evaluates institutions on sustainability metrics within their respective curricula, research programs, facility operations and more.

UMMS was among 74 schools from six countries to submit information for grades this year. The resulting 2022 Report Card, released in April to coincide with Earth Day, include recommendations for improvement and help schools benchmark progress against peer institutions. 

The UMMS ranking fell largely in line with peer institutions; of 28 participating U.S. schools, only four garnered higher marks.

“The real power of the report card is its ability to focus attention on areas where we can — and indeed must — improve,” said Professor of Internal Medicine Brent Williams, M.D., M.P.H., a longtime faculty advisor for WCPH. “I’m proud to be part of an organization that is willing to engage in the process and I commend the students who prompted us to participate. They challenge us to do better and that is inspiring.”

The grades are based on 50-plus questions spread across five domains: curriculum, research, community outreach, support for student engagement and campus sustainability. WCPH students worked closely with UMMS faculty and administrative leaders to gather and document the data behind the final report card.

WCPH representatives have also been invited onto the task force charged with ensuring UMMS meets the goals set forth in the university’s overall Carbon Neutrality initiative, making the medical school one of the first colleges at U-M to include students in the zero-emissions decision making process.

“The school leaders have been overwhelmingly supportive, engaging with us in a way that I think reflects a real commitment to this issue, ” said third-year student Colby Foster, another WCPH leader. “One of my core beliefs is that what’s healthy for the planet is healthy for us as people, too. It is gratifying to be in a place where I’m surrounded by others who feel the same way.”