Dr. Melissa Lem, a family doctor and board member of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, poses for a photograph in Vancouver on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Dr. Melissa Lem, a family doctor and board member of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, poses for a photograph in Vancouver on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Canadian doctors say political activism part of their jobs on issues affecting health

Climate change has been associated with harms to physical and mental health

As a child growing up in Toronto, Dr. Melissa Lem was dubbed a tree hugger thanks to her passion for the environment. It’s a label she fully embraces as a family physician pushing for political action when it comes to the link between health and climate change, a major issue during the federal election campaign.

Lem, who now works in Vancouver and is a board member with the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, said the group garnered support from the Canadian Medical Association and four other large health organizations before meeting with representatives of three major federal political parties in February as it called for a commitment to limit global warming.

Since then, the physicians’ association has bolstered its position and will be joinedon Thursday by 19 more groups representing hundreds of thousands of health-care professionals advocating for action, said Kim Perrotta, the association’s senior director of climate, health and policy, adding only the Conservative party has formally declined discussions with the group.

Lem said momentum for bold activism by doctors has built steadily, especially after warnings that climate change is the biggest threat to health in the 21st century, based on a major study published in 2018 in the journal The Lancet.

It’s hard to ignore recent marches around the world, with youth who fear for their future demanding politicians take decisive steps on climate change, she said.

“We have definitely stepped up our efforts to communicate with our members of Parliament,” said Lem, who carried a placard saying “Climate change harms our health” when she recently joined other doctors and medical students from the University of British Columbia to march among an estimated 100,000 people in Vancouver.

Climate change has been associated with harms to physical and mental health through issues including pollution, floods, wildfires and insect-borne diseases.

Lem said more doctors have become social activists in recent years because their patients’ health is affected by what’s going on around them.

Last week, some Toronto-area health-care professionals and trauma-care doctors called for a national ban on handguns after meeting with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who later said he would give municipalities the authority to ban the guns in their communities.

Dr. Gary Bloch, a family physician at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, said doctors who see the often terrifying impacts of social policies are increasingly choosing to get politically involved.

He joined Lem in denouncing a recent tweet by the Journal of the American Medical Association, which asked people to agree or disagree with the statement: “Medical school should produce physician scientists, not physician social justice activists.” Many other health professionals also disagreed with the tweet’s premise in their comments online, however the tweet’s poll showed 31 per cent agreed with the statement, and 69 per cent disagreed.

“I thought it was ridiculous,” Bloch said. “It comes from an extremely antiquated view of what medicine and being a physician is, one that somehow places a barrier between the idea of science and the idea of society. I do not see the divide. We cannot even begin to think about improving health without using the full context of how people live.”

Greater activism by physicians is “coming out of all corners right now,” Bloch said. “Doctors, on the one hand, sense their limits. But they are very aware that if they only use their traditional tool boxes they will only get so far in improving people’s health. And I think the other piece is that doctors are quite aware of their privileged voice and many physicians feel some responsibility to use that privileged voice for social good.”

Bloch said he wanted a career addressing poverty-related issues before deciding to go to medical school and has linked his scientific knowledge with intervention, often by connecting patients with a social worker so they can apply for disability or child-tax benefits, for example, or file their income-tax forms. His team also connects patients to a no-fee lawyer if necessary.

His work is based on a ”tool” he developed 10 years ago to screen all patients for poverty by asking about their living and employment situation as well as social supports, educating them about resources and linking them to services. It was initially used in Ontario but the College of Family Physicians of Canada has produced a version for doctors in every province and territory.

Children from low-income families are more likely to develop a condition that requires treatment later in life, even if their economic status improves, Bloch said, adding deprivation of food and housing are just some of the reasons poverty has such a high impact on health, Bloch said.

Countless studies have linked poverty as a risk factor for cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and mental health problems and that has a direct hit on health-care costs that governments must consider in making policy decisions, he said.

Dr. Victor Do, president of the Canadian Federation of Medical Students, said social issues have become a greater part of the curricula across Canada, often through advocacy from students aiming for more awareness about a range of topics including health of Indigenous and LGBTQ patients, for example.

“Sometimes it’s been discussed that all physicians, and medical trainees for that matter, should stay in their lane but we know that social determinants make such a huge impact, probably more than the medical treatment that we give to our patients. So if we see things like climate change issues or gun violence they matter to us because they affect the patients that we care for and they affect our ability to do our jobs,” said Do, a fourth-year medical student at the University of Alberta.

“For me, being an advocate and a leader is core to being a physician.”

ALSO READ: Climate activists plan to close Vancouver bridge as part of Canada-wide protest

ALSO READ: Elizabeth May pledges to plant 10 billion trees by 2050

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw and Premier Jason Kenney say the province would look at adding additional COVID-19 measures in the coming weeks if the virus continues to spread. (Photo by Government of Alberta)
Walk-in COVID-19 vaccination clinic to open in Red Deer

Alberta adds 1,345 new cases of the virus

Public health restrictions on non-essential travel and vacation bookings are being increased in B.C. (B.C. government)
COVID-19: B.C. announces signage along Alberta border to discourage non-essential travel

B.C. extends COVID-19 indoor dining, group fitness ban until May 25

A vial of some of the first 500,000 of the two million AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine doses that Canada has secured through a deal with the Serum Institute of India in partnership with Verity Pharma at a facility in Milton, Ont., on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio - POOL
Alberta begins rolling out AstraZeneca COVID vaccine for those aged 40 or older

There are more than 70 pharmacies offering AstraZeneca, including 26 offering walk-in appointments

A child writes in their school notebook during a home schooling session in Cremona, Alta., Monday, March 23, 2020, amid the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. Thousands of students in Calgary will shift to online learning as of today in a bid to curb rising COVID-19 infection rates in the city. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Online classes begin for some Alberta students amid rising COVID-19 cases

Alberta currently has the highest rate of active COVID-19 cases in the country

In this image from NASA, NASA’s experimental Mars helicopter Ingenuity lands on the surface of Mars Monday, April 19, 2021. The little 4-pound helicopter rose from the dusty red surface into the thin Martian air Monday, achieving the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. (NASA via AP)
VIDEO: NASA’s Mars helicopter takes flight, 1st for another planet

The $85 million helicopter demo was considered high risk, yet high reward

sign
Alberta Biobord Corp. recently hosted a virtual open house from Stettler

The company plans to develop a fuel pellet and medium density fibre board (MDF) plant near the community

The Rogers logo is photographed in Toronto on Monday, September 30, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin
Rogers investigating after wireless customers complain of widespread outage

According to Down Detector, problems are being reported in most major Canadian cities

People are shown at a COVID-19 vaccination site in Montreal, Sunday, April 18, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Nothing stopping provinces from offering AstraZeneca vaccine to all adults: Hajdu

Health Canada has licensed the AstraZeneca shot for use in people over the age of 18

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons Tuesday December 8, 2020 in Ottawa. The stage is set for arguably the most important federal budget in recent memory, as the Liberal government prepares to unveil its plan for Canada’s post-pandemic recovery even as a third wave of COVID-19 rages across the country. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Election reticence expected to temper political battle over federal budget

Opposition parties have laid out their own demands in the weeks leading up to the budget

Each spring, the Okanagan Fest-of-Ale is held in Penticton. This year, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival will not be held. However, beer is still available. How much do you know about this beverage? (pxfuel.com)
QUIZ: How much do you really know about beer?

Put your knowledge to the test with this short quiz

Pall Bearers carrying the coffin of the Duke of Edinburgh, followed by the Prince of Wales, left and Princess Anne, right, into St George’s Chapel for his funeral, at Windsor Castle, in Windsor, England, Saturday April 17, 2021. (Danny Lawson/Pool via AP)
Trudeau announces $200K donation to Duke of Edinburgh award as Prince Philip laid to rest

A tribute to the late prince’s ‘remarkable life and his selfless service,’ the Prime Minister said Saturday

Most Read