After three years, it was incredibly great to be back in-person for the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) annual meeting, themed Learn Serve Lead, this past week.
Held November 11-15 in Nashville, the conference struck an impressive balance of relevant and important content and entertainment and engagement. The four plenary sessions all opened with 15 minutes of music with some definite Nashville country flavor, including one that opened with a country singer who also happened to be a neurosurgeon, and another featuring a medical student and resident duo playing the violin and cello.
It’s the first major conference I’ve been to in-person since the pandemic struck and it brought home how valuable it is to find ways to be in the same space with our counterparts and experts. There are about 6,000 in attendance for this conference and is the biggest in North America for both American and Canadian medical schools. And it is always so well-orchestrated and successful in bringing the most important topics of the day for us together with Pulitzer prize winning speakers, celebrated authors, extraordinary historians and other top experts.
The big plenaries are always focused on social issues and advocacy, reminding us of the fundamental things we must never forget in delivering healthcare that is compassionate, safe and inclusive. Equity, diversity and anti-racism continue to be a significant focus. This year, climate change and health was a major addition. The AAMC and the Medical Council of Canada are just beginning to take steps to have this critical area reflected in medical school curricular programing.
We can be proud of our college in this area, as we are ahead of the curve already thanks to some amazing student advocates who lobbied for climate change content in our curriculum: Sehjal Bhargava, now in residency in Ottawa; Nathan Fortin, in Year 4 and Brooklyn Rawlyk, in Year 3 of our medical doctor (MD) program. And thanks to our excellent undergraduate program leaders, Regina Gjevre and Meredith McKague, who listened and responded to offer this cutting edge curriculum in the USask undergraduate medical education program.
Our curriculum currently includes content on environmental health and climate change in each of the four years of the MD program. For example, Year 1 students learn about changing climate and respiratory diseases including the impact of smoke and forest fires (very relevant here in Saskatchewan and Canada!), heat exposure, as well as health in the context of food production and climate change—to name only a few of the areas covered. Year 2 students are involved in further learning across climate change, environmental health, and water security and health. In Year 3, our students learn about environmental health in relation to occupational hazards and environmental toxins, and Year 4 students can take a complete elective on environmental health and participate in a review session on environmental/occupational health in preparation for residency.
The plenary session on November 14 was titled Why Climate Action Is the Future of Medicine and How Health Care Professionals Can Make a Difference Today. Climate change is actively affecting our health as many know, and medical professionals need to be aware of causes of potential harm to human health, their prevention and treatment. As is so true in all areas of care, people who are already vulnerable due to current health issues and ability to access care are impacted the most. The session showed us why academic medicine needs to play an active role in combatting climate change—and thus its negative impact on health.
One fascinating example shared was the impact of healthcare on climate change, and the estimate that hospitals in the United States are responsible for 8% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. If American hospitals were a country they would be the seventh-greatest emitter in the world! We heard of initiatives from reducing food waste to “greening” the operating room. (Some good information on this can be found in this British Medical Journal article.)
Care providers, learners and academic healthcare leaders have an important role to play and we learned about how the big picture of climate change connects to the practice of medicine, how climate action can improve health and positively impact health equity, climate interventions at the bedside, and our role in leading societal change as trusted voices.
The other plenaries were equally excellent. One focused on civil discourse and the need to listen to one another regardless of our own ideology, politics and background rather than shouting over one another and remaining entrenched (and more ignorant) in our own beliefs. Another focused on the racial divide that continues to do so much harm in the United States and that as Canadians we can certainly learn from and apply to our own challenges with equity, diversity and inclusion here.
These sessions—and the whole conference—truly provoked thought and inspired!