As people all over the globe face growing climate-related challenges, a team of researchers led by Monash University has found that the terminology used to address the health impact of climate change is currently inadequate.
The experts highlighted an urgent need to capture real-time data on the impact of climate change-related events on human health, healthcare workforces, and healthcare systems by systematically integrating concepts related to natural disasters – such as heatwave or drought – in standardized medical terminology.
“Climate change, a critical risk driver of natural disasters, is rapidly jeopardizing global environmental sustainability, planetary health, population health, and sustainable development goals,” said study lead author Zerina Lokmic-Tomkins, an associate professor of Nursing and Midwifery at Monash.
“Our research indicates that current clinical terminologies lack the necessary depth to capture the full range of hazards associated with climate change, particularly those linked to environmental and meteorological factors.”
“This gap hinders our ability to genuinely understand the extent of the impact of climate-related natural disasters on human health, but also how we plan to deliver effective healthcare during disasters, and plan interventions to support healthcare systems in times of crisis.”
By mapping the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction-International Science Council (UNDRR-ISC)’s Hazard Information Profiles (HIP) to SNOMED CT International, a widely used clinical terminology database for electronic health records, Lokmic-Tomkins and her colleagues identified critical gaps in the terminology related to the health impact of the climate crisis.
The analysis revealed that chemical and biological disaster hazard concepts had better representation than meteorological, hydrological, geohazard, extraterrestrial, environmental, technological, and societal factors.
In Lokmic-Tomkins’ view, one of the most concerning findings was the absence of terms dealing with hazards such as heatwaves and droughts in SNOMED CT International.
“These phenomena have intensified due to climate change and have significant impacts on human health, migration patterns, and armed conflict situations globally,” she said. “Correcting this deficit in SNOMED CT is crucial to capturing these events as causative factors of health-related issues.”
In addition, the researchers also called for global cooperation to expand this database to include unique geographical and regional hazard contexts disproportionally experienced in countries most affected by the climate crisis.
“By including diverse perspectives and contributions globally, the clinical terminology can better reflect global health needs and improve disaster preparedness and response efforts. This means capturing hazards linked to meteorological clusters, such as heatwaves and droughts, which have significant impact on human health across the lifespan,” Lokmic-Tomkins said.
“Enhancing globally agreed terminology would enable clinicians, public health officials, and health informaticians to manage vast volumes of clinical data, and retrieve, analyze, and contextualize it to specific climate-related situations.”
“This data can be utilized to develop evidence-based interventions, predict future impacts more precisely, and support informed decision-making by policymakers and government leaders for climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies.”
Finally, this study highlights inequities in global health information systems infrastructure, especially in areas where health systems lack the capacity to use standardized terminologies.
These gaps further exacerbate challenges in providing basic healthcare for vulnerable communities in resource-limited settings.
“Our work is just beginning. By addressing these challenges and expanding clinical terminologies, we can help develop resilient healthcare and community systems that can effectively cope with the increasing frequency and intensity of climate change-related disasters,” Lokmic-Tomkins concluded.
The study is published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association.
Climate change has a variety of health impacts on individuals and communities. Here are some of the major health consequences associated with the changing climate:
As global temperatures rise, heatwaves have become more frequent and intense. Prolonged exposure to high temperatures can result in heat-related illnesses like heat stroke, dehydration, and even death. This is especially true among vulnerable populations like older people, children, and those with pre-existing health conditions.
Rising temperatures can exacerbate air pollution by increasing ground-level ozone. This can aggravate respiratory conditions like asthma, bronchitis, and other chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases.
Changes in climate can alter the distribution of disease-carrying vectors like mosquitoes and ticks. This can lead to the spread of diseases like malaria, dengue, Lyme disease, and Zika to areas where they were previously uncommon.
Altered precipitation patterns can lead to both droughts and flooding. Floods can contaminate freshwater supplies, increase the risk of waterborne diseases, and create breeding grounds for disease-carrying insects. Droughts can reduce the availability of clean drinking water and contribute to food scarcity.
Changes in temperature and precipitation, along with increasing frequency of extreme events, can impact crop yields and reduce food availability and quality, leading to malnutrition and food-borne illnesses.
Extreme weather events, displacement, and the general stress of adapting to a changing climate can have profound effects on mental health, leading to anxiety, depression, and other psychological issues.
Rising sea levels and extreme weather events can lead to displacement of populations. Competition for diminishing resources can also trigger conflicts, further endangering communities.
Increasing carbon dioxide levels can stimulate plants to produce more pollen, exacerbating allergic reactions and respiratory problems.
Climate-related health impacts disproportionately affect vulnerable populations, including children, older people, low-income communities, and those with pre-existing health conditions.
Melting permafrost and changes in ecosystems can potentially release and spread ancient pathogens or foster the development of new ones.