The impact of integrating environmental health into medical school curricula: a survey-based study

BMC Med Educ. 2021 Jan 8;21(1):40. doi: 10.1186/s12909-020-02458-x.

Abstract

Background: Inclusion of environmental health (EH) in medical education serves as a catalyst for preparing future physicians to address issues as complex as climate change and health, water pollution and lead contamination. However, previous research has found EH education to be largely lacking in U.S. medical education, putting future physicians at risk of not having the expertise to address patients' environmental illnesses, nor speak to prevention.

Methods: Environmental health (EH) knowledge and skills were incorporated into the first-year medical school curriculum at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine (Nutley, New Jersey), via a two-hour interactive large group learning module with follow up activities. Students completed the Environmental Health in Med School (EHMS) survey before and after the year 1 EH module. This survey evaluates medical students' attitudes, awareness and professionalism regarding environmental health. In year 2, students completed the Environmental Health Survey II, which measured students' perceptions of preparedness to discuss EH with future patients. The research team created both surveys based upon learning objectives that broadly aligned with the Institute of Medicine six competency-based environmental health learning objectives.

Results: 36 year 1 students completed both the pre and post EHMS surveys. McNemar's test was used for paired comparisons. Results identified no statistically significant changes from pre to post surveys, identifying a dramatic ceiling. When comparing year 2, EHS II pre-survey (n = 84) and post-survey (n = 79) responses, a statistically significant positive change in students' self-reported sense of preparedness to discuss environmental health with their patients following the curriculum intervention was noted.

Conclusions: Our conclusion for the EHMS in Year 1 was that the current generation of medical students at this school is already extremely aware of and concerned about the impact of environmental issues on health. Through the EHS II in Year 2, we found that the six-week environmental health module combining didactic and experiential elements significantly increased medical students' self-reported sense of preparedness to discuss environmental health issues, including climate change, with their patients.

Keywords: Climate change; Environmental health; Environmental justice; Health disparities; Medical education; Prevention.