Interview with Sam Myers
Sam Myers, physician, principal research scientist, Harvard School of Public Health and founding director of the Planetary Health Alliance.
Tell us briefly who you are and describe your role and history in the work on sustainable development within healthcare?
My name is Sam Myers, and I am the founding director of the Planetary Health Alliance and a principal research scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health. I am trained as a physician in internal medicine. For over twenty years I have worked at the intersection of global environmental change and human health. I started as a practitioner, working for two years in Tibet as field manager of the Qomolangma Nature Preserve leading an integrated conservation and human health project. I worked for USAID and then for Conservation International leading projects in LMIC settings integrating health and natural resource management. I decided that to build a robust field focused on the health impacts of global environmental change, we needed a strong research foundation, and I went back to Harvard to do a clinical research fellowship and my Master of Public Health. For the past 15 years, I have been leading research teams quantifying the impacts of anthropogenic environmental change on the health of different populations. For example, we study how rising concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere are making our food less nutritious and pushing hundreds of millions of people into risk of nutrient deficiency. We also study the health impacts of falling populations of insect pollinators, of warming oceans and their impact on the geographic distribution and size of fisheries, and of biomass burning in SE Asia and the potential for peatlands protection to reduce mortality from particulate air pollution associated with these fires. In addition to my research, I lead the Planetary Health Alliance which includes over 350 organizations in 65 countries focused on growing the field of Planetary Health and mainstreaming its insights and frameworks into the world of action and decision-making.
What would be the most important message to our staff about planetary health and sustainable healthcare?
Clinicians have a critical role to play in achieving Planetary Health. We are the most trusted messengers in the world, carrying one of the most compelling messages about the Earth Crisis: that we cannot safeguard a livable future for our children unless we protect and regenerate the natural life support systems that we depend upon. And we touch nearly everyone on Earth. There are several ways for clinicians to become involved in Planetary Health and we have outlined 5 areas of activity in a paper that we recently published about clinicians in planetary health.
Different roles that clinicians can play in promoting planetary health
- Recognizing altered patterns of illness in response to changing biophysical conditions: for example, clinicians in the northeastern parts of the United States might notice shifts in the distribution of Lyme disease to the north and west or increasing incidence of heat-related kidney disease or heat shock in outdoor laborers.
- Greening healthcare practices to reduce impacts on climate, biodiversity, resource use, or pollution. Several national and international organizations and initiatives are now focused on reducing the ecological footprint of healthcare facilities.
- Serving as trusted messengers who can communicate to patients the many decisions we can make to optimize our personal health while also supporting planetary health. For example, in wealthier countries, shifting to more vegetable-based diets and muscle-powered locomotion (e.g., walking and biking) and advocating for greener neighborhoods confer significant personal benefits to physical and mental health while also improving planetary health.
- Working with community groups and others to build and grow social movements to put pressure on the policy and private sectors for accelerated action to protect natural systems. Clinicians working with mothers’ groups, schools, community centers, and others are increasingly engaged in movement building and can bring scientific and moral authority to the argument that protecting natural systems is integral to safeguarding a livable future for humanity.
- Educating the next generation of clinicians to recognize planetary health as foundational for any efforts to promote and preserve human health. Numerous efforts to inject planetary health education and competencies into medical school, public health, and university curricula, including some national-level discussions about mandating planetary health competencies across all medical schools, are under way. Such efforts are creating growing demand for clinicians to serve as planetary health educators in all of these settings.
From Table 1 in the paper Clinicians for Planetary Health
What advice would you like to give to our staff who want to start contributing to changing education and research based on sustainable development?
You are part of a global community interested in doing this! Please join the Planetary Health Alliance and become involved in the new Planetary Health Expand project that is focused on integrating Planetary Health into all public health, medical, and nursing curriculum globally. There are many national and regional efforts in this area that we are helping to bring together and we would love to work with you! We would also like to help disseminate your research results and efforts in our monthly newsletter. You can join the PHA as an individual (to receive newsletters and other notices) or organization. Both are free.
Are there any important partners for us who work at a medical university that can give us important input in our work with sustainable development in education and research?
There are many groups thinking about how we can green health care. And we welcome you to work with the Planetary Health Alliance as well. We are happy to discuss with you which groups and efforts might be closest to your interests
If an employee wants to know more about your work on sustainable development and healthcare - where can they turn?
Text: Emma Swärdh, May 2023.