June 2018 Champion!

Matthew T. Burke M.D., F.A.A.F.P – American Academy of Family Physicians
by Ira Dreyfuss

Matthew T. Burke M.D., F.A.A.F.P

The hotter it gets, the more dangerous it can get if you work outside. And climate change — global warming, as it’s called – does just like the term says: heat up a lot of the planet. Dr. Matthew Burke, FAAP, had that point brought home in the case of the husband of a colleague at MedStar Promptcare, an urgent care facility in Washington, DC.

The man, who worked in construction, was on a job site away from the District when he was found passed out on scaffolding. Although he was taken for hospital care, memory and other cognitive problems lingered after he left the hospital. “There’s a very strong possibility that he suffered a stroke-like event as a result from working in hot summer days,” says Dr. Burke.

With carbon pollution fueling more heat waves, as well making temperatures hotter during heat waves, heat injuries become ever more likely, and Dr. Burke says physicians need to let the dangers created by climate change sink in. It’s not just heat, he notes – asthma exacerbations, and acute health crises created by natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods, are not only expectable, they’ve been happening. For the sake of patients and society, physicians need to support actions that mitigate climate change, he says.

Nurturing this attitudinal shift in the medical community is not always easy, but Dr. Burke has been working on it. Before he left the Metro Washington area – he and his wife now work in Seattle, where he is a physician in the University of Washington Neighborhood Clinic system – he had been director of state programs for the Medical Society Consortium. “Much of climate change policy and mitigation is going to happen at the state level,” he says. For instance, physicians could advocate for clean energy, for better public transportation, or help to green their neighborhoods with community gardens, he says.

And of course there is patient education. In Seattle, as elsewhere, people have asthma as well as allergies from trees, grasses and other plants – Seattle’s ever-present evergreens are why Seattle calls itself the Emerald City. Climate change can be a delicate topic, and Dr. Burke does it with a light touch, notably with patients whose conditions are affected by climate change. But he says that, even when he jokes about it, his patients understand. “People laugh in agreement,” he says.