When a Canadian doctor wrote two words on a medical chart, he had no idea those few strokes of his pen would make global headlines.
"Climate change" is what Dr Kyle Merritt wrote alongside a patient's symptoms following a heatwave which resulted in poor air quality across Nelson, British Columbia, in late June.
Extreme weather conditions during the North American summer, the general practitioner believed, had deteriorated the health of a 70-year-old woman who was suffering from diabetes and heart failure, while living in a caravan with no air conditioning.
“Oftentimes it's vulnerable patients that are the most affected,” Dr Merritt told Yahoo News.
“It’s people who don't have air conditioning in their homes in the case of the heat dome, or live in places where they can’t get away from the wildfire smoke.
“To see a patient affected that way and being forced to come in and get admitted to hospital because where they're living is not really safe for them anymore, I found it upsetting.
“I wanted to think about the the underlying factors that were driving (her deterioration), so that's why I wrote it down.”
Doctor clarifies reports he diagnosed patient with 'climate change'
Dr Merritt confirmed he has only added the words climate change to one patient’s chart.
In the case of his 70-year-old patient, he believes it “had to be part of the reason” she was admitted to the emergency room, and so he felt confident adding the term.
Reflecting on his decision, Dr Merritt said he “wasn’t trying to make a big deal out of it”, but felt it was important for both him and his colleagues to “recognise the truth" and add the contributing factor of climate change.
While there have been some headlines claiming he diagnosed a patient with “climate change”, Dr Merritt confirmed this is not the case as "climate change is not a medical condition”, but rather a contributing factor which can worsen illness.
“The diagnosis has to be a specific medical condition that's recognised as a medical condition,” he explained.
“As physicians, we can’t just start making things up, of course we work within a medical framework."
Doctor advocating for patients by recognising climate change
While the response was unexpected, Dr Merritt, a member of Doctors and Nurses for Planetary Health, is pleased the link between the health of the planet and human health is gaining added exposure.
"I was totally unprepared (for the attention). I had no idea it would be like this," he said.
"It's nice to have interest, but at the same time it's been definitely overwhelming because I have to carry on with my regular job as well."
Dr Merritt hopes in the coming years general practitioners will give more recognition to underlying causes and recognise climate change as a direct health issues.
“In a lot of places, and certainly in my corner of the world, we're starting to see the direct impacts of climate change on human health,” he said.
“It’s always difficult to make the link, but it's got a lot more clear as time has gone on.”
Within his profession, Dr Merritt believes the impact of climate change on human health has become more widely accepted over the past year.
“I hope that trend continues, because as physicians it's our professional responsibility to advocate for our patients,” he said.
“We don't have any real vested interest in different industries, we’re really just interested in promoting health and trying to protect our vulnerable patients.”
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