January 2022 Champion
Shaneeta Johnson, MD
From patients in Atlanta to the devastation of a hurricane in the Bahamas, Dr. Shaneeta Johnson has seen the effects of the climate crisis on health. She wants people to know what she has learned, and to act.
Dr. Johnson is a clinical professor at Morehouse University in Atlanta, specializing in minimally invasive and bariatric surgery, but that’s hardly all she does, especially about climate change. Her climate activities include work with the National Academy of Medicine, The Lancet Countdown on health and climate change, and speaking engagements in, among other places, Washington, Georgia, and her native Bahamas. She also was an inaugural fellow of the National Medical Association’s Climate Change and Health Equity Fellowship at the Medical Society Consortium.
The cord that binds Dr. Johnson’s climate action is the urgency of making people understand the problem, which she sees as her primary purpose. “I cannot stand aside and not do something about it,” she says.
In addition to the health issues such as increased asthma, heat illness that she finds in Atlanta-area patients, she worked in the Bahamas, providing medical supplies and patient care after Hurricane Dorian struck in 2019. “It was devastating what I saw,” she says. “I hope to never see that again.”
At The Lancet, Dr. Johnson was a spokesperson for more involvement with the poor and powerless. They need to be at the table when policy is made so they can get the resources they need, she says. The 2021 report documented the fact that vulnerable communities are not getting the help they need, she says.
At the National Academy of Medicine, Dr. Johnson is in a work group for health professional education, where she wants to increase the level of knowledge about the climate crisis within the health care community. The medical community can clean up its own house by decarbonization and reducing medical waste, she says. And she wants to help health care professionals spread the word about climate change.
“If we can now start to speak to our patients in a way that will translate the impact and give them concrete ideas on what they can do to make a change in their lives to mitigate climate change, that will be very important,” Dr. Johnson says.
As the crisis worsens, health dangers worsen as well, but awareness can create action, Dr. Johnson says: “Education is the most key.”