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New toolkit designed to help health clinics during climate disasters

Illustration of a red cross floating in a life preserver.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Researchers on Tuesday released a toolkit designed to help free and low-cost clinics in the US better deal with heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires and floods in underserved communities.

The big picture: Despite treating those most vulnerable to the health impacts of climate-driven disasters, these clinics are typically undersupplied and underfunded, experts tell Axios.

How it works: The Climate Resilience for Frontline Clinics Toolkit guides staff and providers at clinics serving uninsured and underinsured populations on how to develop disaster preparedness plans, extreme weather warning systems, and health tip sheets to give patients.

  • It was developed by researchers at the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and the nonprofit organization Americares and was funded by Biogen.
  • Free and low-cost clinics in California, Massachusetts, Texas and North Carolina worked with Americares and the Harvard team to create the toolkit — parts of which were previously made accessible ahead of Tuesday’s launch.

By the numbers: The organizers found this by surveying 450 clinic staff members across the US last year more than two-thirds said their clinic had experienced “disruption due to extreme weather” at least once in the past three years.

  • Less than 20% of clinic staff surveyed described their clinics as “very resilient” when faced with extreme weather, while 77% of respondents did not have “the knowledge or the tools” to harden their clinics in preparation for a climate shock.

When it comes to disasters preparedness and resilience in the healthcare sector, “everything” is about hospitals, Kristin Stevens, Americares’ senior director of climate and disaster resilience, told Axios.

  • “That’s where the money, the attention, the media goes,” Stevens said. “The health centers we work with are on that outer ring of attention and funding. But at the same time, they see the patients who are most vulnerable to the impact of the climate crisis.”
  • “And so they see the patients who are the most vulnerable, but they themselves have the least resources on this front.”

What they say: Alexis Hodges, a volunteer family nurse practitioner at North Carolina’s Community Care Clinic of Dare, tells Axios that patients have run out of medication, lost strength, been unable to get to the clinic and experienced increases in respiratory illnesses due to Hurricane Dorian and Matthew , which drove “lasting” health consequences.

  • As the Outer Banks prepares for winter storms, or nor’easters, Hodges is incorporating parts of the toolkit into how she advises patients to plan ahead.

  • “I would remind patients to have bottled water, to have non-perishable food… [and] to go to the food bank and make sure they have these kits in stock now,” she said.

Yes, but: The patient resources in the new toolkit are in English, which does not mitigate existing language barriers in US disaster warning systems and health care, especially for migrant workers, who make up a significant portion of patients who see many frontline clinics.

  • Organizers tell Axios that they recognize the need for non-English resources and that the toolkit will be translated into Spanish within the coming year.

The bottom line: Jessie Liu, a family physician at Oakland’s La Clínica de La Raza, tells Axios that many of her clinic’s patients belong to historically marginalized communities, living with pre-existing health conditions and greater exposure to climate impacts resulting from systemic inequities.

  • “Patients are not housed or live in conditions that may lack adequate ventilation and are unable to protect their indoors from outdoor smoke or heat, [and] many people don’t have cars,” Liu said. “Everything becomes much more complicated when there are climate disasters.”
  • “There’s such a constant onslaught and myriad of challenges to working in these communities that are constant, that having a toolkit like this … is going to be helpful.”

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