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April 24, 2023

Responding To: Georgetown Reflects on CUGH 2023: "Global Health at a Crossroads: Equity, Climate Change and Microbial Threats"

The Interconnected Nature Of Health And The Environment

Sumin Lee (G’23)

The Consortium of Universities for Global Health (CUGH 2023) conference was an instructive experience as a Global Health Institute student fellow. The fulsome agenda on a range of topics from pandemic preparedness and regulatory harmonization to social determinants of health allowed me to tailor my conference experience to my academic and professional interests. Among the topics covered, I was especially drawn to panels on social determinants and the nexus of climate change and health.

To learn more about how to address persistent health disparities at the population level, I attended a plenary session on social determinants of health. The speakers were candid in emphasizing that the society at large had thus far “intentionally maldistributed” opportunities to achieve optimal health outcomes. The session asked important questions about what socio-medical interventions the public health and health care sectors could explore to improve the fundamental determinants of health and wellness. Some of the proposals, such as screening and referring for social needs in medical diagnosis and enhanced attention to health-related social needs, were inspiring in this regard. One speaker also noted that medicine can advocate for health as a broader concept beyond just medical and clinical care, and encouraged better integration of primary health care and health promotion. Furthermore, the speakers’ call for greater investments at the local community level, such as better housing, struck a chord with me as a public policy student.

In addition to social determinants-related sessions, I found the discussions on climate change and health particularly eye-opening. A plenary session on climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution (dubbed the “triple crisis”) provided an opportunity to appreciate the interconnected nature of health and the environment and the adverse consequences of the crises that must be tackled jointly, such as the threat of infectious diseases, food insecurity, land degradation, and more. Furthermore, the topic of environmental justice—which I also learned about in my climate change policy class at Georgetown—was interesting to explore from a public health lens.

Lastly, the concept of climate-smart health care was new to me but nonetheless extremely interesting. I attended two breakout sessions dedicated to this topic, which drew my attention to the health sector’s overall carbon footprint. While I had learned about health improvement as a co-benefit of addressing climate change, I had a limited grasp of the scale of the health systems’ contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, nor their climate adaptation and mitigation planning. One speaker shared that if the U.S. health care sector was a country on its own, it would be the thirteenth largest emitter in the world of greenhouse gas, raising the question of how to deliver health care in a climate-friendly way. The speakers offered a wide range of proposals, including regulating medical waste, medical device reprocessing, transitioning to renewable energy sources in hospitals, establishing sustainable cold chain systems, and operating solar-powered mobile clinics. It was also inspiring to hear about the policymakers’ attention to the topic, such as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ 2022 pledge to mobilize the health care sector to reduce emissions.

Overall, the CUGH 2023 conference was a wonderful learning experience as a graduate student in public policy with an interest in public health. I am grateful to have had an opportunity to learn from renowned experts and professionals, who inspired me to explore the topics of social determinants and climate change impacts on health in my career after Georgetown.

Sumin Lee (G’23) is a graduate student in the master of policy management program at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.

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