Health system ‘unprepared’ for climate crisis

Michelle Wisbey

2/08/2023 4:16:56 PM

Medical colleges, including the RACGP, representing more than 100,000 health professionals are pleading for urgent action on climate change.

Dry lake after a drought.
International researchers expect Earth will be 1.5 degrees hotter by the early 2030s when compared to pre-industrial temperatures.

Twelve of Australia’s leading medical colleges have formed a coalition calling for a critical shakeup of healthcare as our climate crisis worsens.  
‘We, as medical experts, are very concerned that Australian healthcare systems remain unprepared to handle extreme weather events that may be just around the corner,’ the alliance said in a joint statement.
Earlier this year, the Federal Government launched the first ever proposal for a National Health and Climate Strategy, with consultation closing last week.
According to its terms of reference, the risks of rising climates include the spread of disease, air pollution worsening respiratory conditions, and poor mental health.
As part of the Healthy Climate Futures campaign, the medical group said the strategy needs to be fully funded and resourced on an ongoing basis, and needs National Cabinet sign-off to enable ‘urgent, coordinated, and effective implementation’.
It is also calling for the strategy to be guided by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ knowledge and leadership, and to address the wider determinants of health to create climate-resilient communities.
Dr Kate Wylie, Chair of RACGP Specific Interests Climate and Environmental Medicine, labelled the current state of climate action a ‘health emergency’ that she is already seeing play out in her own practice.
‘If there’s an extreme weather event, then we see people impacted by that event … if there’s a heatwave or a fire, we see the impacts of that,’ she told newsGP.
‘This is a complex problem and health is complex, we’ve got federal and state governments and all the different professions, public, private and community, our patients, the people of Australia.’
Research from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change expects Earth will jump by 1.5 degrees in the early 2030s when compared to pre-industrial temperatures. 
Last month, the World Meteorological Organization revealed there is a 70% chance of an El Niño developing in Australia this year, resulting in hotter temperatures, increased fire danger, and potential droughts.
Dr Wylie said the changing climate is especially impacting our youngest generations.
‘Young people are really scared, they’re worried about the future, and they see a future that doesn’t support them,’ she said.
‘They have this sense that civilization is going to break down so what’s the point? What’s the point of doing things because there’s no future for me anyway.’
The alliance said the choices being made today can help to lock in health outcomes for generations to come, saying ‘children have the right to be born into a safe environment with a stable climate’.
In its individual submission to the National Health and Climate Strategy, the RACGP called for a long list of changes to ensure healthcare, and specifically general practice, is prepared for the impending climate shift.
The College recommended change in five key areas: measuring emissions, mitigation, adaption, health in all policies, and a strategy approach.
It said healthcare contributes to around 7% of Australia’s total carbon emissions, recommending exploring opportunities to reduce the environmental impact of clinical and plastic waste.
It is also called for information to be made public about the environmental impact of different drugs and treatments.
Dr Wylie agreed this would be an important tool for GPs’ decision making in day-to-day practice.
‘For example, I want to know out of Crestor and Lipitor, which one has the highest carbon footprint,’ she said.
‘The two most prescribed drugs in Australia, if one has a lower carbon footprint than the other, I can save a whole heap of carbon just by what I choose to prescribe. Easy.’
The submission also calls for the development of a national heath vulnerability assessment to identify which impacts and risks should be prioritised, as well as ensuring susceptible populations are not left behind in any changes.
‘In order for the strategy to fulfill its purpose, it is essential that it is implemented across the whole of government,’ the submission concluded.
The Federal Government is expected to release the final strategy later this year.
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Dr Jim Aroney   3/08/2023 6:08:32 AM

I wonder whether the membership would prefer their reps to plead for urgent action on non trendy issues such as Medicare rebates and GP numbers?

Dr Elissa Fay Armitage   3/08/2023 7:26:27 AM

Prediction: “In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution,” reported Life magazine in 1970. “At the present rate of nitrogen buildup, it’s only a matter of time before light will be filtered out of the atmosphere and none of our land will be usable,” said ecologist Kenneth Watt.
Earth day predictions
As nebulous as this prediction was, there is no buildup of Nitrogen or nitrogen compounds in the atmosphere and crop production is at an all time high.

Dr Rosalie Schultz   4/08/2023 12:23:00 PM

Great to see RACGP engaging urgently in climate change, the most important health issue of our time.
RACGP must act on climate change because the destabilisation of climate is contributing to disease and disability (particularly mental health) and affecting housing, employment and livelihoods, and driving increasing need for GPs.