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Environmental health influencers

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Katie Huffling knows nurses can create a healthier world. 

Katie Huffling
Katie Huffling

While attending midwifery school, Katie Huffling, DNP, RN, CNM, FAAN, learned how environmental exposures can impact pregnancy and birth outcomes. The more she learned, the more concerned she became. Eventually, Huffling’s desire to expand her influence on the issue led her to move from bedside nursing to focus on environmental health. She currently serves as executive director of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments (ANHE). In June, Huffling and a group of ANA leaders presented the “Impact of Climate Change on Health” for consideration at the Membership Assembly, ANA’s governing and official voting body, with the goal of making climate change a key component of the association’s policy platform. The Assembly approved related actions. ANA recently spoke with Huffling about why nurse leaders are crucial to the cause.

What sparked your decision to devote your career to environmental health issues?

While I was working as a midwife at a hospital outside of Washington, DC, many of my patients took public transportation. In the summer, when ozone levels increased, they would come into my office wheezing after waiting for the bus on those hot, poor-air-quality days. I was asked to speak at an Environmental Protection Agency hearing about the effects of ozone on health, and I included professional examples such as that along with climate change science in my presentation. That powerful experience led me to think about focusing my efforts on environmental health.

It’s special to be with people during their pregnancy and birth, but now I can impact hundreds of thousands of people through connections that I make with other nurses and nursing organizations.

Why is it important to update ANA’s position on climate change now?

Climate change is the greatest public health threat that we currently face, and it’s essential that nurses, as evidence-based practitioners, are engaged. Climate change science has exploded since ANA’s previous position was updated in 2008, so we need revised language to reflect that. Having an updated policy statement gives nurses something they can point to and say, “This is part of our practice.” ANA was one of the first health organizations to make a public statement on climate change. That’s significant for a leading national nursing organization.

How can nurse leaders empower themselves to act on climate change?

One of the most vital things to do is to become an advocate. We need our elected officials and corporations to be leaders in addressing climate issues. As the most trusted profession, nurses can support strong climate policy by talking about our experiences as healthcare professionals and how our patients are affected by climate change.

What is the Nurses Climate Challenge?

The Nurses Climate Challenge (nursesclimatechallenge.org) is a campaign by ANHE in partnership with Healthcare Without Harm, a healthcare sustainability organization. Nurses sign up for the Challenge and receive tools to help them educate their colleagues. For example, you can get slides and talking points to present at a staff meeting. You can learn how to talk to the C-suite at your organization about climate change and getting involved in policy. Our goal is to have 50,000 nurses educated by the end of 2022; we’re currently close to 42,000.

Would you share a leadership lesson you’ve learned?

We’re so much stronger when we work together. We’ve got to listen to and follow the guidance of the most affected communities to understand their needs and how we can help bolster their efforts. Together, we win.

— Interview by Elizabeth Moore, content creator at ANA. 

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