Medical groups warn of climate strain on health

Matt Woodley

22/11/2022 5:07:43 PM

Increasing exposure to extreme conditions and the reduced capacity to respond are jeopardising Australians’ health, a new report has found.

Man wearing mask amid bushfire smoke.
Extreme weather events are increasing in frequency and ferocity, greatly impacting the health of those affected.

Extreme fire danger, life-changing heat and severe drought are affecting Australians’ wellbeing and exacerbating pressure on an already strained healthcare system, the authors of a multi-disciplinary report into climate change’s impact on health have written.
The 2022 MJA-Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change also warns that more people are being displaced by weather-related disasters, such as the massive floods that have inundated large parts of eastern Australia in recent months.
Chair of RACGP Specific Interests Climate and Environmental Medicine, Dr Kate Wylie, told newsGP the report outlines in ‘stark detail’ how vulnerable Australians are to climate change and its ‘profoundly detrimental’ effects on health.
‘Extreme weather events, catastrophic floods and fires, and changes in disease transmission have caused loss of lives and livelihoods, diseases and ill health,’ she said.
‘The associated loss of infrastructure has also disrupted health and social services and thousands of people have become internally displaced. 
‘It is vital that we heed the warning from this report and address the climate health emergency as a nation and as a profession.’
According to the report, weather‐related displacement in Australia has been on an upward trajectory since 2008, even adjusting for population increases during that time, culminating in more than 52,000 people losing their homes in 2020, mostly due to fires and floods.
In contrast to this growing threat, the report suggests Australia’s ability to respond to natural disasters and extreme weather is diminishing.
‘There’s a very concerning combination of findings for Australia: increasing climate-related health threats, and indicators of reduced health system capacity,’ lead author and environmental health scientist Associate Professor Paul Beggs said.
‘We found numerous mounting risks to Australians’ health from fires, floods, drought, and heat.
‘Worryingly, we also found that, for the first time since we began tracking, Australia’s health emergency management capacity has fallen.’
In response to the findings, the AMA, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP), the Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association, the Public Health Association of Australia, the Australian College of Nursing, and the Australian Medical Students’ Association, joined the publications to call for policy measures to help safeguard Australians’ health from climate impacts.
Key policy recommendations include:

  • developing health and climate change plans at all levels of government
  • more consistently aligning government energy policies with the goals of the Paris Agreement
  • incorporating environmental sustainability principles in an upcoming update of the Australian Dietary Guidelines.
However, while the report says more needs to be done, its authors have welcomed a recent Federal Government commitment to develop a National Climate and Health Strategy and establish a National Health Sustainability and Climate Unit.
‘Since coming into office, the Government has taken very promising steps on climate and health, and we commend them on their more ambitious emissions reduction targets, and on their recent Budget commitments,’ Associate Professor Beggs said.
‘The Countdown findings demand further urgent policy responses, and we urge the Government to act on the recommendations without delay.’
It is a point echoed by Dr Wylie, who said the Climate and Health Strategy must be developed and employed as a matter of urgency.
‘This plan must include general practice and recognise that as primary healthcare practitioners we are there front and centre in our communities caring for our patients,’ she said.
‘Our practice of preventive, low carbon healthcare needs to be incorporated into the strategy and understood as an avenue for climate action.’
She also said that those working in general practice need to understand the report’s implications on their professional lives.
‘Climate change is affecting the health of Australians now and these effects are only going to grow as the climate crisis deepens,’ she said.
‘There are multiple resources available for GPs, developed by the RACGP and Doctors for the Environment Australia, that demonstrate how we can incorporate environmental sustainability into our work.
‘Every year these reports demonstrate how grave a problem climate change is, how ill-prepared we are and how important it is that we rapidly reduce emissions. It’s time to pay attention.’
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Dr Rosalie Schultz   23/11/2022 1:15:56 PM

Thanks Dr Kate for bringing this to attention.

We GPs need to use our ability to assess evidence, provide advice and the trust that community has in us to bring urgent change to politics and lives.