How extreme weather events affect public health

HeWeCon: Dr Claudia Konnopka and her team are researching how extreme weather events affect public health and health care.

Differences in environmental awareness

Claudia Konnopka, who grew up in East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, could observe well how different the awareness and approach of different societies is when it comes to the topics of environment, sustainability and global change. "There were differences between East and West Germany. I found it very interesting to see how, for example, measures against air and wastewater pollution or waste separation were gradually introduced. On the other hand, everyday consumer goods in the GDR were often much more durable and were repaired more frequently, which contributed to sustainability.

Many paths lead to the goal

Claudia Konnopka developed a soft spot for numbers and data at an early age and therefore decided to study business mathematics. However, as it lacked the application reference, she switched to the field of economics. There, after attending a lecture in the field of health economics, she was immediately hooked on the subject and focused her studies on health economics. For Claudia Konnopka, the attraction for this research area lies in its interdisciplinarity, "because it allows me to pursue my diverse interests well." A background in medicine or psychology is useful, she says, but so is knowledge of statistics, handling data, developing research designs, or even knowledge in the field of health economics. "No degree program can cover all of these areas, so you have to acquire the rest of the knowledge you didn't learn during your studies on your own." Particularly in such interdisciplinary fields, a straightforward curriculum vitae is therefore not essential, Claudia Konnopka finds. Even today, she still benefits from her first degree in business mathematics. The basics she learned there help her with the statistical evaluations in the HeWeCon research project. "It makes it easier for me to understand mathematical backgrounds and to penetrate facts through logical thinking."

HeWeCon - Health Effects of Weather Conditions

At the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, Claudia Konnopka heads the junior research group "HeWeCon" at the Institute for Health Economics and Health Services Research. Although climate researchers have been warning of increasingly frequent extreme weather events and their diverse consequences for some time, the effects on the health of the population have only received attention in recent years. Claudia Konnopka and her team want to make the various risks of climate change on health visible, because "we already have heat waves and everyone can experience the effects for oneself."
HeWeCon is to investigate the fundamental relationships between weather and health and provide threshold values above which the health risk increases depending on the weather situation. Individual pre-existing conditions and socio-demographics are to be taken into account because the risk is different for each person depending on their health, says Claudia Konnopka. This would make it possible to categorize people into risk groups, which would then be assigned different risk levels.

Research with health data

During her doctorate, Claudia Konnopka had already used health insurance claims data for her research. These reimbursement data are invaluable for research, says Konnopka, because they reflect the health status of the insured and their healthcare reality very well. In addition, such large data sets offer completely different evaluation possibilities and knowledge gains than, for example, surveys of individual persons. This data does not have to be collected, but is available in anonymized form within the framework of data protection regulations. "The idea at HeWeCon is to link this health data with data on the weather, which is also freely available. This allows me and my junior research group to create a comprehensive database on a relevant and innovative topic that is of great interest." Until now, health insurance claims data have hardly been used for research on climate change, although they offer great advantages for precisely this purpose. "We can use our data to see the impact of extreme weather events at the individual level rather than just at the aggregated population level. We can also take into account many pre-existing health conditions, allowing us to better assess and inform at-risk groups based on their health profiles."

Health and weather-informed risk prediction tool

In order to better inform vulnerable groups about the impacts of extreme weather that may affect them, the junior research group is developing a so-called risk prediction tool. This can be integrated, for example, into an app where people can enter their pre-existing conditions and then receive individualized warnings for the coming days depending on the weather. Such detailed research results as the prediction tool are also particularly important to Claudia Konnopka as a citizen: "Unfortunately, research results far too often remain trapped in the academic bubble without developing real benefits for the general public. It is therefore important to me that the results and findings from the research project also reach the target group for which they are intended: Politicians, the healthcare system, but above all citizens. To this end, the risk prediction tool in particular should be made accessible and communicated to a broad base. We want to find low-threshold formats to communicate results in a simple and interesting way."

Doing nothing costs money

Claudia Konnopka is also interested in calculating health and health economic effects that are caused by extreme weather events, such as diseases and injuries, sick leave, and health care costs. "So far, measures to mitigate climate change and its consequences are often perceived as costly. We want to use our research to show that doing nothing also costs money, as population health will be noticeably impacted in the coming years and decades, and health care will be strained accordingly, especially in vulnerable risk groups. Hopefully, through these findings, policy discussions can be further motivated and arguments for short- and long-term preventive measures can be supported."

HeWeCon and career

For Claudia Konnopka, it is clear: "The BMBF's support for young researchers is a great way to gain further qualifications as a young scientist." She also says the research project helps her to deepen her interests and research profile in the field of climate, environment and health. "So, during the project, I can habilitate, make contacts and constantly expand my knowledge and experience, not only from a technical point of view, but also in managing my junior research group with two PhD students." She aspires to an academic career and would like to develop and conduct further research projects that build on this topic and the findings to date.

Last updated on