Helping community health clinics address climate risks

Neena Arora, Chief Operations Officer for San José Clinic, had never seen anything like Winter Storm Uri when it slammed into Texas in February 2021, crippling critical infrastructure. For four days, the clinic – which serves thousands of uninsured patients in the greater Houston area – was forced to close. 

Neena Arora
Chief Operations Officer at San Jose Clinic in Houston, Texas. (Photo by San Jose Clinic)

“We were prepared for the freeze, but no one was prepared for the widespread and sustained power outages, loss of cell phone service or lack of water. It was extremely challenging,” Neena said.

Neena and her colleagues often find themselves helping their patients navigate other health challenges brought on by the impact of extreme weather, as well as climate change. These challenges can have a domino effect in the lives of those who rely on San José Clinic for healthcare – and those patients are not alone.

Community health clinics: a lifeline on the front line of the climate crisis

San José Clinic is one of more than 2,800 community health clinics in the United States. Throughout the country, free and charitable clinics, federally qualified health centers and other centers provide free or low-cost primary care to more than 32 million people.1

But clinics aren’t just on the front lines of health equity and access: they are on the front lines of the climate crisis, too. When dealing with the effects of pollution and extreme weather events, like heatwaves, flooding, wildfires and storms, many clinics may bear a disproportionate burden to support operations and patient health.

“The families most affected by climate change often have the fewest resources and the least ability to adapt,” said Mariel Fonteyn, Associate Director of Preparedness at Americares, a health-focused relief organization.

Clinics urgently need access to effective tools to address current climate-related risks to their operations and patient health. Biogen, Americares and the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (Harvard Chan C-CHANGE) teamed up to help address this issue.

“While climate resiliency is often focused on building more climate-resilient infrastructure, our project will focus on the people inside those buildings,” said Dr. Aaron Bernstein, Interim Director of Harvard Chan C-CHANGE. “We’re helping caregivers create plans for delivering care, including accessing power, medications and records. We also want to make it easy for clinics to screen for disaster-related health effects, such as carbon monoxide poisoning and infectious diseases from floodwaters.”

A community health clinic in Florida that suffered major damage from Hurricane Michael in 2018 (Photo by William Vazquez/Americares)

Using real-world insights and best practices, the organizations are developing a first-of-its-kind Climate Resilient Health Clinics Toolkit that will help clinics use available resources to better manage patient care when facing increasingly common climate health effects, aiming to reach 150 clinics in the next five years. Each of the pilot clinics provides free or low-cost healthcare — such as primary, behavioral, emergency, maternity and specialty care — to uninsured or underinsured patients in the U.S.

A patient receiving dental care at the Free Clinic of Simi Valley, which has provided free services in Ventura County, CA since 1971. (Photo by Free Clinic of Simi Valley)

This work is part of Biogen’s Healthy Climate, Healthy Lives program, a 20-year commitment to climate, health and equity.

“This relationship with Biogen will help address one of the most important aspects of our response to climate change: protecting the most vulnerable people from its effects,” said Bernstein.

“This work is foundationally about health equity. If we can find the means to safeguard the most vulnerable in our country, then we can surely do so for those who are better off.”

This project, designed to bolster the work of clinics, has the potential to improve the continuity of care for millions of at-risk patients. The insights, tools and best practices could help millions more.

An Americares medical team providing care in Puerto Rican communities cut off from health services after Hurricane Maria in 2017. (Photo by William Vazquez/Americares)

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