Dr. Patrice Nicholas, Director of the Institute’s Center for Climate Change, Climate Justice, and Health, was only nurse named to inaugural cohort of the National Institute of Health’s Climate and Health Scholars program

As extreme heat-related illnesses continue to rise, so does the efforts of Dr. Patrice Nicholas to cool them down.

Nicholas, Director of the MGH Institute’s Center for Climate Change, Climate Justice, and Health, recently wrapped up a stint as one of only eight healthcare professionals – and the only nurse –named to the inaugural cohort of the Climate and Health Scholars program in the NIH Climate Change and Health (CCH) Initiative.

“It was an honor to be among renowned health scientists from across the country who are working to call attention to how climate change adversely affects people,” said Nicholas, who was sponsored by the NIH National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR). “I learned so much from these experts and came away with ideas that can help our Climate Center be even more influential in the coming years.”

The cohort met and interacted regularly, identifying and exploring insights to help build climate and health research capacity. Nicholas said she was pleased she had the opportunity to support the NINR’s mission of leading nursing science to solve pressing health challenges and inform practice and policy by optimizing health and advancing health equity into the future.

“I was drawn to NINR because I’m a nurse, of course, but also because of the Institute’s focus on health equity, social determinants of health and population health, and how those fit exceedingly well with the Climate Change and Health Initiative,” Nicholas, who also is a Professor of Nursing in the MGH Institute’s School of Nursing, said.

Nicholas gave several presentations to fellow scholars and NIH staff during her time as a CCH scholar. They included “Extreme Heat in a Climate-Changing World: Impacts on Vulnerable Populations with Implications for Social Determinants of Health,” “Health Promotion and Community Health: Advances and Opportunities in Climate and Health Research,” and Health Consequences in a Climate-Changing World: The NIH Climate Change and Health Initiative.”

“Dr. Nicholas was a tremendous addition to the inaugural cohort of the NIH Climate and Health Scholars program, particularly in the program’s intent to build capacity in climate and health research across NIH,” said Dr. Louise Rosenbaum, a Health Science Policy Analyst in NINR’s Division of Science Policy and Public Liaison. “Her vast knowledge of the literature provided the NINR staff with a robust and relevant introduction to climate and health research, and she raised awareness about topics in climate and health at multiple levels of health care.”

Nicholas, who has led the Institute’s Climate Center since its 2017 launch, stressed the importance of interprofessional health education to properly inform the public about the health consequences of climate change. “The social determinants of health are inextricably linked with climate change,” she said.

Among the pressing issues she identified that need to be addressed include:

  • The association between low urban neighborhood greenness and hypertension disorders of pregnancy
  • Respiratory diseases and asthma resulting from increased air pollution and poor air quality, especially in children, elders, the unhoused, and BIPOC populations
  • Heat-related illness like heat exhaustion, heat cramps, and heat stroke
  • Exacerbated cardiovascular disease, stroke, and other chronic conditions,
  • Exposure to zoonotic diseases and infections like influenza, Ebola, and COVID-19
  • Community-health impacts of nutrition insecurity and disparities
  • Vector-borne diseases like malaria, dengue fever, hantavirus, Lyme disease, and Zika virus,
  • Water-borne diseases like cholera, giardiasis, and cryptosporidiosis due to rising water temperatures
  • Hotter days that widen the racial gap in U.S. schools, and overall curtails learning in all children

Solutions to the global warming crisis that threaten the planet’s existence as it is now known, include mitigation by reducing and stabilizing the levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; adaptation by reducing vulnerability to the existing impacts of climate change as well as making the most of inevitable changes such as increased growing seasons; and resilience by preparing and planning to, absorb, recover from, and more successfully adapt to adverse events.

It’s these topics, and more, that the Institute’s Climate Center has focused on over the past six years. Since then, it’s held an annual climate symposium with notable speakers such as U.S. Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) and climate expert Bill McKibben. The 2023 symposium, “On the Frontlines of Climate Change,” was co-sponsored by the MGH Center for the Environment and Health and Brigham and Women’s Council on Climate and Sustainability. It attracted more than 200 attendees from around the world, including Australia, Taiwan, and the UAE. 

The center has joined forces with several initiatives. Among those are the Nurses Climate Challenge that aims to educate 50,000 health professionals nationwide on the impacts of climate change on human health, and co-chairing a strategic action group for the National League of Nurses’ vision statement on climate and health.

The center also regularly co-hosts a webinar series with the MGH Center for the Environment and Health, where Nicholas is Co-Director for Policy and Advocacy. And it continues to work on weaving climate change issues into the curricula in several of the Institute’s academic programs.

“A comprehensive research agenda is needed to address the looming public health challenge of our time, Nicholas said. “And because nursing is the largest segment of the health care workforce and often works in the community, nurses have a key role in educating the public about the health consequences of climate change.”

Do you have a story the Office of Strategic Communications should know about? If so, email us at ihposc [at] mghihp.edu (ihposc[at]mghihp[dot]edu).