EcoHealth: Tackling Crises of Environmental and Public Health

Historically, we’ve looked at environmental degradation and human health issues as separate policy and scientific issues. We focus on fixing problems, not preventing them. In truth, the health of our planet and those who inhabit it are inextricably intertwined. The health industry can and should lead from the front to effect change that will improve our public and planetary health. We must be proactive.

Dr. James E.K. Hildreth, the Dean of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, TN, recently noted, “Our planet does not need humans to be healthy, but we need a healthy planet for humans to survive.” The interconnection of planetary and human health is called “EcoHealth.”

All told, 24% of deaths worldwide are linked to environmental factors. That’s 26 deaths every minute, every day. Climate change is a reality that we all must face. The latest example is the impact of Hurricane Ian in Florida this fall. For those following the global news scene, consider the flooding in Pakistan and Germany. More than 150 million citizens of our planet are now displaced due to climate impact.

While the urgency to address EcoHealth challenges has never been greater, the reluctance to change is equally strong. In the U.S., our ability to act is undermined by our deeply divided political system.

Delivering a Message People Will Listen To

To change behaviors, we must compel action. To compel action, the message must resonate. We live in an era of huge distrust of the government, the media, intellectuals, and anyone with different political views than our own. Moreover, we live in an age of rampant disinformation. It is hard to distill fact from fiction. How can we change behavior if we do not have a basic understanding of the truth?

Changing behavior requires both a message that resonates and a trusted messenger. The health industry is uniquely positioned to provide both and lead the effort. The answer is persistence and delivering the message in positive and relatable terms. We must strike a balance between conveying a sense of urgency and maintaining a can-do attitude. People will act if they believe their actions will result in positive life changes.

Climate change discussions focused on the melting ice caps and polar bears are too far removed from most people’s experience to resonate truly. Instead, life sciences companies can help encourage people to learn about how our immediate environment affects the health and well-being of our neighbors, while also leading community engagement programs that make a difference in local environmental degradation.

The messenger is as important as the message. Some will respond to scientific data, but many will not. We saw that clearly in the initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Uptake of the vaccine was slow when it was just political leaders and scientists lecturing from the podium, but we saw an uptick in vaccination rates when the messengers became country music stars, professional athletes, preachers in the pulpit, and entertainment figures.

Change is difficult and necessary for our human and planetary health. The health industry can help drive change with positive messages and proactive measures.

  • Bob Martineau, JD

    Bob Martineau, JD is a Senior Partner at FINN Partners. Bob specializes in Environment & Sustainability and the intersection of public health and environmental health. He is a former Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and has practiced environmental law at a leading national firm headquartered in Nashville, TN, and served in the Office of Counsel at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.


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