Pitt School of Nursing joins the Nurses Climate Challenge to implement climate education in curriculum


Image via School of Nursing webpage

Pitt School of Nursing on Victoria Street.

By Madilyn Cianci, Staff Writer

More than 300 heat records were broken in the U.S. this past summer, resulting in heat-related illnesses. If a patient enters a hospital with a heat stroke or symptoms of worsening asthma from air pollution, nurses must provide them with the necessary care. So, some nurses are fighting for education on climate-related health conditions.

The School of Nursing recently joined the Nurses Climate Challenge, a national campaign guided by Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments and Healthcare Without Harm. The Challenge provides resources for nursing faculty to educate students about the health-related impacts of climate change and sustainability. The initiative also offers resources for leadership, policy advocacy and actionable practices to reduce the healthcare industry’s environmental impact.

Shanda Demorest, coordinator for the Nurses Climate Challenge, said patients in the U.S. are suffering from both the physical and mental effects of climate change. 

“Folks are experiencing the effects of climate change, whether that’s acute effects related to air pollution, extreme heat, vector-borne disease and increasing mental health impacts from climate change, such as eco-anxiety and solastalgia,” Demorest said. 

Climate change not only affects personal health, but also buildings and infrastructure within healthcare systems. According to Demorest, flooding from hurricanes constantly damages  hospitals in the southeastern part of the U.S. In the west, hospitals experience increases in wildfire damage and climate-related blackouts.  

According to Demorest, supply chains are also affected by climate change. Demorest said wildfires, severe weather and even road infrastructure damage impact access to materials needed in health systems.

Demorest added that the healthcare system — mostly hospitals — are responsible for 8.5% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. She said teaching nursing students to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions related to their practice primarily comes in the form of education on environmental sustainability.

When Jennifer Wasco, assistant nursing professor, arrived at Pitt last year, she made it her goal for the School of Nursing to join the Nurses Climate Challenge. 

“I proposed joining the School of Nursing Commitment to the Dean, Jacqueline Dunbar-Jacob, explaining as faculty members, we have always been committed to ensuring the best preparation of nurses to better care for patients and communities,” Wasco said. 

According to Wasco, there is an extra layer to achieving this goal because of climate change. She said time is running out to make an impact, so the School of Nursing must formally incorporate climate education into its curriculum and “make small, palpable changes.”

“As one of the nation’s leading schools of nursing, we need to act now, not only for our own students, but also to position the University as a leader in this important area,” Wasco said. 

Accepting this challenge will bridge the training gap that is currently experienced in Pitt nursing education. According to Wasco, nursing graduates will learn how to recognize and prevent climate-related health conditions in the populations they serve. 

Demorest said historically, the nursing curriculum has included public health, community health and population health courses — but not a required environmental health component. 

According to Demorest, environmental health education, which does not include climate or planetary health education, is “very ad hoc, very inconsistent” within nursing schools because it only shows up in a “very small part” of a course throughout one’s entire nursing education. 

Demorest, a nurse herself, understands awareness that patients and communities are impacted by climate issues is important for nurses to have. With this knowledge, they can help patients remain resilient toward the climate effects they experience every day. 

“Basically, nurses are educators by nature, and if we can help patients prevent their own climate issues and reduce their vulnerabilities to exposure, then it’s just part of patient care,” Demorest said. 

Joe Dacanay, a sophomore nursing major, said he has not received any environmental education in the School of Nursing so far. Through the Nurses Climate Challenge, the School of Nursing will highlight the importance of these discussions.

Demorest and Wasco agree that climate education provided by the Nurses Climate Challenge places nursing students at an advantage after they graduate from Pitt. 

“They would be disadvantaged after graduation without the necessary knowledge in this domain,” Wasco said. 

According to Dacanay, a big part of his studies include understanding the background of diseases and using the tools provided to solve those problems. Though he knows that many of these tools are non-reusable plastics, environmental education can be used as a way to decrease the waste within the healthcare sector and form strategies with patients on minimizing climate issues. 

“The initiative would, I hope, not only discuss climate change, but nurses’ impact on climate change,” Dacanay said. 

Wasco said climate education for Pitt nursing students will accelerate meaningful discussions, allowing for the development of innovative and impactful ideas for change. As nursing students are expected to see more required knowledge in the area of climate change, Wasco said that now is the time for change.

“The plan is that by addressing curricula changes now, our students will not only be prepared for their professional careers, but also be capable of making direct changes at their institutions leading to improved outcomes,” Wasco said. “This will make the University a local and regional leader, as no other academic nursing institution has joined the challenge to date.”