While the link between climate change and the surge in natural disasters has garnered significant media attention in recent years, a nurse researcher explored the health impact of a different type of natural disaster: extreme heat events, or heat waves.
Adrienne Wald, MBA, EdD, RN, CNE, MCHES
In a recent literature review in Nursing Economics$, Adrienne Wald, MBA, EdD, RN, CNE, MCHES, examined data on the volume and cost of emergency room visits for heat-related illnesses because of extreme weather-related events in the United States due to climate change.
The review describes how heat waves have been the deadliest of extreme weather-related event in the U.S. — more than hurricanes, tornadoes and floods combined.
By drawing attention to this lesser-known consequence of climate change, Wald hopes to increase awareness about the critical need for hospitals and communities to collaborate with public health professionals to prepare for and respond to the evolving health needs of people affected by extreme heat events.
“Nurses need to be involved in understanding how extreme heat and other climate changes are affecting patient health, especially the most vulnerable populations like the elderly, children, people with chronic conditions and people in specific occupations like outdoor work,” said Wald, an associate professor of nursing at the College of New Rochelle (N.Y.).
Wald is among a growing cadre of nurses launching research projects, nursing education and advocacy efforts to prepare for what they expect to be an increasing number of climate change-related health needs.
Nurses have a valuable role in the pre-clinical setting, said Wald, where they can educate communities about how to avoid more serious heat-related illnesses and recognize early warning signs of heat exhaustion.
“The idea is to prevent these illnesses rather than treating them in the ER,” Wald said.
The literature review describes one heat wave in California in 2006 that led to more than 16,000 excess ED visits for heat-related illnesses in 58 counties. Studies also showed links between heat waves and increased ED visits in North Carolina, New York, Texas, Florida and Georgia.
To reduce the risk of heat stroke, public health nurses can reach out to schools, home health facilities and occupational groups about the importance of watching for early warning signs of heat exhaustion, such as headache, nausea and malaise. If left untreated, heat exhaustion can progress to heatstroke, which can cause more serious neurologic symptoms, including confusion, disorientation, delirium and coma, as well as multi-organ failure and ultimately death.
Wald is also an active member of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, an organization focused on helping nurses understand the relationship between human health and the environment. Members of the group are involved in advancing research, evidence-based practice, education and policies.
To advocate against the repeal of the Clean Power Plan, Wald recently testified before a hearing in New York City about how nurses are seeing the impact of climate change.
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