The Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association (AHHA) has backed calls for a new national standard to ensure health services plan for and address the impacts of climate change upon healthcare.
The recommendation is contained in a document to be launched in Canberra today by the Climate and Health Alliance, a Framework for a National Strategy on Climate, Health and Wellbeing for Australia.
According to Alison Verhoeven, chief executive of the AHHA, the framework recommends that a new National Safety and Quality Health Service (NSQHS) Standard be developed, aimed at minimising the risks of climate change to patients and the delivery of safe, quality care.
This new NSQHS Standard would incorporate organisation-wide risk assessments and planning for risks such as surges in service demand, destruction of infrastructure and equipment, and interruptions to workforce availability.
Verhoeven writes below that climate change is a threat multiplier to a sector already under pressure and that coordinated national policies are needed to ensure healthcare services can respond to climate-induced health impacts.
Alison Verhoeven writes:
We welcome today’s release by the Climate and Health Alliance of its Framework for a National Strategy on Climate, Health and Wellbeing for Australia. (AHHA is a member of the Alliance.)
The Framework is a succinct and useful ‘roadmap’ that will support the Australian Government in taking a leadership role in protecting the health and wellbeing of Australians from climate change.
In light of recent experience we have to ‘think the unthinkable’ on climate change and health. Major parameters have changed and are continuing to change, resulting in unprecedented events with real as well as possible unknown negative effects on human health and wellbeing.
It is a fact that the 20 hottest years on record on Earth have all occurred since 1981, and the hottest year of all time was last year—2016. This succeeded the previous hottest year—2015—which was in excess of the previous record, set in 2014.
This is resulting in weather extremes—something Australia is particularly susceptible to. Floods, storms and heatwaves are occurring more often, and in many cases with greater severity. The knock-on effects on human health can be severe in terms of sickness, injury and even deaths.
Last November’s thunderstorm asthma event in Victoria showed just how devastating a confluence of circumstances can be with climate change as an enabler. Around 8,500 people, struggling to breathe, sought hospital treatment in a time window of a few hours, and Victoria’s intensive care wards experienced a 3,000% increase in asthma-related admissions. Nine people died. Ambulance and emergency services were overwhelmed with so many people seeking emergency treatment all at once.
There are many other knock-on effects of climate change. Warmer climates increase the range and prevalence of diseases such as dengue fever, parasitic diseases, and diseases resulting from exposure to various viruses and bacteria.
Changes in prevailing weather can affect food and water security, and agricultural productivity, with follow-on consequences for people’s health. Hotter temperatures can have occupational health and safety impacts, including on emergency services staff themselves. The negative effects of environmental change on people’s mental health is also well-documented.
Air pollution combined with climate change can result in new chemical reactions in the air, leading to new effects on the people breathing it in. Some groups in a population may suffer the effects more than others, such as children, older people, those with pre-existing medical conditions, Indigenous Australians, and those least able to get to services or other safe places. In circumstances such as these, climate change can place an undue burden on those least able to respond.
Seven areas for action
The Framework for a National Strategy on Climate, Health and Wellbeing for Australia is an action guide for governments in the face of such serious challenges. It suggests seven areas of policy action:
- Health promoting and emissions-reducing policies
- Emergency and disaster preparedness
- Supporting healthy and resilient communities
- Education and capacity-building
- Leadership and governance
- A sustainable and climate-resilient health care sector
- Research and data.
Each of these policy areas has a set of desired outcomes, with specific policy directions and recommendations for achieving each outcome. Governance mechanisms are also suggested, as well as arrangements for evaluation, monitoring and reporting on progress.
In terms of healthcare and hospitals, at AHHA we think climate change is a threat multiplier to a sector that is already under pressure. It is important and sensible that our hospitals and health workforce is backed by coordinated national policies aimed at ensuring that healthcare services are prepared and able to respond to climate-induced health impacts.
New healthcare and building standards needed
For example, as suggested in the Framework, a new additional National Safety and Quality Health Service (NSQHS) Standard could be developed, aimed at minimising the risks of climate change to the health of patients and the delivery of safe, quality care.
This new Standard would incorporate organisation-wide risk assessments, and planning for risks such as surges in service demand, destruction of infrastructure and equipment, and interruptions to workforce availability.
New building standards could be introduced for healthcare facilities that prioritise resilience to climate risks. Governments could prioritise public and private investment in technical innovations and systems that enable all health services to withstand power interruptions in the face of emergencies, disasters or extreme weather.
There are many other useful suggestions in this Framework, which has been supported over the last 18 months by organisations such as ourselves, the Climate and Health Alliance, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine, Public Health Association Australia, Doctors for the Environment Australia, and the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation.
The World Health Organization regards climate change as ‘the defining health issue of the 21st century’. This Framework provides not only a roadmap for tackling this issue—it is also an opportunity for Australia to become a world leader in health and climate change policy.