Planetary Health course developed in the School of Medicine

Dr Gemma Ashwell and Dr Emma O’Niell from the School of Medicine have been developing a new course on Planetary Health as part of their Population Health module.

The image above is by the illustrator Beka Haytch who created it live, as ‘visual minutes’ from a Planetary Health expert panel session in May 2022.

Why was the Planetary Health course developed?

The climate crisis is the “single biggest threat to human health we have ever faced” as described in an open letter, signed by more than 300 organisations representing 45 million health professionals, prior to COP26.

Whilst climate change is threatening human health on an unprecedented scale, those working in healthcare have been shown to have limited knowledge of this area. A study done in 2020 reported that only 15% of medical schools globally include teaching on climate change and human health in their curricula.

We decided change was needed and so we created and developed a new course on Planetary Health to sit within the Population Health module.

How was the course developed?

The new course aimed to provide an introduction to the key concepts in planetary health and sustainability.

The Public Health Alliance have recently published an educational framework for planetary health around five key domains and this was used as the basis for the content of the course. Teaching materials were developed by a planetary health champion (Dr Emma O’Niell) together with the module lead (Dr Gemma Ashwell).

How has the course been taught?

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the first year of delivery was entirely virtual. It consisted of synchronous and asynchronous lectures, a new interactive e-Learning package and a live virtual expert panel question and answer session. Case studies were included throughout to highlight applicability of knowledge to medical practice. The course leads were also mindful of the potential emotional impact of the material, therefore there was a focus on positive action and appropriate support was signposted.

A significant benefit of remote delivery was the ability to involve a panel of international experts, from fields including planetary health, disease ecology, ecological economics, animal conservation and climate science. We were delighted that Dr Jane Goodall joined this panel and along with the other experts provided great inspiration for the students.

What impact has the course had?

To try to understand the impact of this new educational initiative, we conducted voluntary anonymous pre and post course student questionnaires. The year group of 284 students were invited to complete the survey, and we had a response from 52% of the cohort.

In line with the literature, results showed only ten percent of respondents had received any prior formal teaching on climate change or planetary health. 91% of respondents felt strongly that this teaching would benefit their future careers and the same percentage felt strongly that planetary health should be part of every medical curriculum.

Here are some quotes from the post-course questionnaire when asked if they had anything else to add:

I definitely think planetary health modules should be compulsory for all courses at university if we want to see change happen.

I think it’s so great that this has been included in the curriculum and has been the best theme of the year!

We need to promote this to other medical schools now!

What advice do you have for others developing similar modules?

  • If you do not have departmental expertise on this topic, can you find a local champion to work with?
  • Be aware of ‘climate anxiety’ and try to include a focus on positive action that can be taken.
  • Is it possible to utilise the potential of remote delivery to include external topic specialists, for example an expert panel discussion?
  • If you are struggling to find space for this topic in a packed curriculum, could you start with something optional and develop from there?
  • Consider harnessing the passion of student societies in promoting the addition of this topic and co-producing the course.


  1. In support of a health recovery.
  2. Guzman, Carlos & Potter, Teddie & Aguirre, A. Alonso & Astle, Barbara & Barros, Enrique & Bayles, Brett & Chimbari, Moses & El-Abbadi, Naglaa & Evert, Jessica & Hackett, Finola & Howard, Courtney & Jennings, Jonathan & Krzyzek, Amy & LeClair, Jessica & Maric, Filip & Martin, Olwenn & Osano, Odipo & Patz, Jonathan & Redvers, Nicole & Zylstra, Matthew. (2021). The Planetary Health Education Framework. 10.13140/RG.2.2.27505.20320.
  3. Omrani OE, Dafallah A, Paniello Castillo B, Amaro B, Taneja S, Amzil M, Sajib MRU, Ezzine T. 2020. Envisioning planetary health in every medical curriculum: An international medical student organization’s perspective. Med Teach. 42(10):1107-1111.

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United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

We use the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a framework to guide our activity. Our Sustainable Curriculum work links to the following SDGs:

    • Goal 4: Quality education
    • Goal 13: Climate Action

Find out more about our impact on the SDGs.