Assessing Extreme Weather and Climate Impacts on Public Health Practitioners

Last summer, Emily Gvino (MCRP and MPH 2021 alumna), teamed up with Dr. Ferdouz Cochran to conduct a needs assessment of public health practitioners across the southeastern United States to understand the impact of extreme weather and climate events in their work. With support from Carolina Integrated Sciences and Assessments (CISA), the duo surveyed 108 professionals from emergency management and disaster services, healthcare coalitions, hospital or clinical based organizations, government-based public health agencies, and other community organizations.

The survey found that public health stakeholders are concerned about not just hurricanes, but also heavy rain, prolonged rain events, and heat. Funding, political climate, and organizational leadership are the main barriers to addressing the health impacts of climate change. Participants were also very concerned about power and infrastructure failures. Participants are greatly concerned about the health impacts of heat but less frequently utilize wet bulb globe temperature (WBGT) in their work. WBGT is different from the commonly known heat index as it accounts for “temperature, humidity, wind speed, sun angle, and cloud cover (solar radiation)” in direct sunlight.[1]

A preview of the report’s findings can be found below, while the full report can be accessed on the CISA website.

Concern about Extreme Weather and Climate Events

Participants were very concerned about heavy rain, prolonged rain, heat, and hurricanes. Participants across all organization types were more concerned about heavy rain events (that may lead to flash flooding events) compared to prolonged periods of rain or flood events themselves. Participants were not at all concerned about fog and generally only somewhat concerned about drought, tornadoes, wildfire, and wind. Healthcare coalitions and emergency management—which operate on local and regional scales—are very concerned about localized impacts of winter weather, which is a lesser concern for other organizations that may operate on a larger scale. Non-profit and community organizations expressed a higher level of concern across flood-related hazards, heat, hurricanes, and storms. Those working in hospital- or clinical-based settings (primarily based in North Carolina) were very concerned about heat and prolonged rain.

The health risks of extreme heat events, from the question, “In your role, which of the following individual-level health risks of excessive heat concern you?”

The health risks of extreme heat events, from the question, “In your role, which of the following individual-level health risks of excessive heat concern you?”

Information and Tools

Despite concern about the health impacts of heat, survey participants less frequently use wet bulb globe temperature (WBGT) in their work—a widely accepted and promoted measure of heat stress. The vast majority of respondents had not heard of WBGT and represent a key demographic that could benefit from access to more information, awareness, and tools regarding WBGT for their work, in comparison to relying on ambient temperatures alone. Across all types of extreme weather and climate events, participants trust the National Weather Service over other information sources, such as other phone apps, national TV stations such as the weather channel, or other web-based sources, such as Weather Underground. When asked to share what sources of information they are lacking in their current work, participants identified real-time phone and web alerts, showcasing opportunities here for improved climate communication.

In addition, public health stakeholders expressed interest in applying future climate projections and priority mapping to their current work. Based on these results, there may be opportunities for increased communication about the health risks of extreme heat and climate events for those in the public health and medical fields. For example, when it comes to heart attacks as a result of winter weather events, there was a disconnect between emergency management, who were very concerned about heart attacks, and those working in hospital or clinical settings, who were mostly concerned about car accidents due to winter weather events. Further research could explore this disconnect between different types of public health stakeholders.

Local Capacity and Leadership Building

Across all types of organizations, survey participants expressed that local levels of leadership should be responsible for preparing for extreme weather and climate events. However, survey participants shared that funding, political climate, and leadership are the most prominent barriers to action regarding addressing extreme weather and climate events in their work. Participants also expressed high levels of concern about power and infrastructure failures and access to healthcare facilities, which may require more regional capacity building and leadership across stakeholder groups. The majority of participants shared that their organizations had an emergency preparedness plan, and over half of these respondents had support the preparation of the plan. While participants reported Hazard Vulnerability Assessments (HVA) were fairly common at their organizations, less than one-third of respondents said that an HVA was prepared annually. Less than half of survey participants and their associated organizations are involved in a healthcare coalition. This summary reports our detailed findings across the top three extreme weather and climate events concerning public health stakeholders: extreme heat, winter weather, and flooding.

A full version of the CISA Public Health Needs Assessment: Summary Report is now available online through the CISA Library. If you’d like to learn more about this project, please contact Emily Gvino ’21.

[1] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Weather Service, WetBulb Globe Temperature

By Emily Gvino, MCRP/MPH ’21

Featured image: Cows who survived Hurricane Florence, stranded on a porch, surrounded by flood waters in North Carolina. Courtesy of Jo-Anne McArthur, Unsplash