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Aug 20, 2020 2020-08 Faculty Finance Research in Education

Asthma-related ER visits spike surrounding thunderstorms, research shows

More people with common respiratory diseases are heading to the emergency room in the days leading up to and during thunderstorms, according to a paper co-authored by Gies College of Business professors Nolan Miller, David Molitor, and Julian Reif and recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

“ERs may want to watch the weather report to anticipate the likely heightened demand,” said Miller, the Daniel and Cynthia Mah Helle Professor of Finance at Gies. “For vulnerable individuals with asthma or chronic obstructed pulmonary disease [COPD], this means thinking about thunderstorm season in the same way they think about high-pollen seasons.  If they’re on medication, they should make sure they have an adequate stock on hand since they may find they need to use it more often.”

This research is part of a larger project funded by the National Institute of Health to study the impact of pollution on health using Medicare data. Miller, Molitor, Reif and former Illinois PhD student Eric Zou (now at the University of Oregon) focused on data acquisition and analysis. To gain clinical expertise, they partnered with Harvard Medical School’s Anupam Jena, a physician and economist, and Chris Worsham, a pulmonology fellow specializing in respiratory illnesses. The work was conducted at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The impetus for working on this project came from incidents in Australia in 2016 and London in the mid-1990s, where thunderstorms seemed to be associated with severe asthma outbreaks.  Anecdotally, there is also a belief that thunderstorms worsen asthma. However, nobody had ever looked systematically at this question or broadly at “everyday” thunderstorms, Miller said.

“Our study fills this gap by linking every thunderstorm event in the US from 1999-2012 to changes in emergency department visits for respiratory illnesses among older adults in the affected county,” added Molitor, assistant professor of finance at Gies.

“Some climate models predict heightened thunderstorm activity as the global climate changes throughout the rest of the century. If storms do become more common, that suggests there will be increased demand placed on the healthcare system to care for individuals with respiratory illnesses,” said Miller, who added the team’s next project will likely look at the health effects of wildfire smoke exposure.