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Climate Change and Health: Think Globally, Act Locally

On November 18th the Lancet Countdown Series released its latest report on Climate Change and Health. As a mother of a six-week-old baby its key message was not easy to absorb – if we continue our current path the life of every child born today will be detrimentally affected by climate change. I am filled with anxiety when contemplating my baby’s future in a world with global mean surface temperatures 2°C higher than pre-industrial levels. The increasingly dramatic apocalyptic scenarios leave me feeling nihilistic; increased floods, wildfires, heat waves, food and water shortages. I’ve shied away from political action in the past but now there is a cause that requires me to step outside my comfort zone and take action.  

Many people around the world are already experiencing the effects of global warming on their lives. The Medics.Academy module on impacts of climate change on health explains the key causes of climate change and how they directly and indirectly affect human health. 

In the UK we can feel removed from these issues, yet in 2018 we experienced four heatwaves, resulting in 863 excess deaths in England alone. Aside from the effects of heat waves on dehydration they also increase air pollution, which worsens respiratory conditions and has been linked to low birth weight babies, miscarriages and stillbirths. The health implications of climate change will become more significant as heat waves increase in frequency and intensity.

Thinking globally, acting locally

Despite the complexity and overwhelming nature of this global problem I have recently felt glimmers of hope. I remember as a medical student hearing the phrase ‘Think globally, act locally’ which urges people to consider the health of the entire planet and to take action in their own communities and cities.  With this in mind I started to take action within the NHS Trust that I work in. 

I joined the Trust’s sustainability steering group and we held two staff engagement events, generating over 100 ideas of ways staff can act to reduce the environmental impacts of healthcare delivery. Ideas ranged from the simple, such a changing all printers to default print on both sides of paper, to more involved, like  painting the hospital roof white to keep buildings cooler in heat waves. Some suggestions required financial commitment but many were about a cultural shift. Helping staff to see how their actions impact on the wider environment can encourage them to make choices that may be better for themselves and their patients, such as choosing to use public transport, cycle or walk to work rather than to drive.    

Doctors, campaigning and the climate 

As well as taking personal steps to minimise healthcare’s impact on the environment, political lobbying can be a useful way for doctors to use their voices to campaign for change. As stated in the GMC duties of a doctor, health professionals have a responsibility to act where we notice unacceptable risks to current and future patient health. This is clearly such a situation. Health professionals have a powerful voice in lobbying for this. Yet engaging in campaigning can be daunting. Many major UK organisations are facilitating doctors and allied health professionals to raise their voices in the climate campaign. 

The Sustainable Development Unit is the official NHS-funded sustainability organisation and the formal reporting body for statutory processes such as Adaptation to Climate Change. It works to support public health and social care organisations with adaptation and mitigation. They can help with guidance and case studies of successful sustainability initiatives. 

The Centre for Sustainable Healthcare is a charity that runs several different schemes aimed at integrating sustainability into the planning and delivery of health services. Their Green Ward Competition and Sustainable QI methodology are excellent resources for building sustainability into everyday healthcare practice.  

UK Health Alliance on Climate Change aims to bring together doctors, nurses and other health professionals to advocate for responses to climate change that protect and promote public health. It includes many large health institutions such as The BMA, The Lancet and several Royal Colleges, which in total represent 650,000 health professionals. 

Doctors for XR is a recently formed group of health professionals affiliated with the Extinction Rebellion Group which ‘utilises non-violent civil disobedience in order to avert climate collapse.’ It’s currently not clear what the GMC response is to doctors engaging in civil disobedience, but the group  is gaining momentum and has attracted large amounts of publicity. 

Healthcare Without Harm is a global NGO with a European branch, which represents a coalition of health institutions. They advise and lobby on European health policy. Membership is free and allows access to further tools and resources for action on sustainable healthcare. 

Some charities such as Medact have specific campaigns regarding climate change and health, and membership isn’t required to become involved in their divestment and fossil free healthcare campaigns. If you are looking to work for change within your NHS trust then a good place to start is with their Sustainable Development Management Plan. All trusts have these and they can be a way of seeing where maximal effect can be made. 

Finally a really useful tool kit for primary care is the Green Impact for Health initiative from the RCGP. It has a list of actions that can be taken within every practice and it runs an award scheme to incentivise these changes.  

There are many ways for individuals to engage in building a sustainable future and it is not too late to make a difference, but we have no time to waste. Action is required at every level, global and local.

About The Author

Rosie Spooner is a Paediatric Registrar at Gloucester Hospital in the Severn Deanery. She has an interest in global and environmental health and a BSc in International Health Policy from the University of Leeds. As a current scholar at the Health Leadership Academy she is working to improve environmental sustainability within the NHS. Find her on Twitter @spooner_rosie

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