How can health professionals engage more effectively in climate conversations at work? Remy Shergill, campaigns and communications manager at the Climate and Health Alliance, shares some advice.
Remy Shergill writes:
At the Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA), we are asked these questions again and again:
- Word-for-word, how do I bring up climate change in a consultation with a patient?
- How do I make my managers care about sustainability?
- What difference can my colleagues and I really make?
On 30 June, we hosted our first Healthy Conversation which tried to answer the overarching question: As health professionals, how do we have effective conversations about climate change at work?
I was thrilled to be joined by Adelaide GP Dr Kate Wylie, cardiothoracic surgeon Dr Ben Dunne and psychologist Carol Ride, who each have their own unique experience in talking about climate change in the workplace. Here are some of their top takeaways.
Talking to patients
Dr Kate Wylie spoke passionately about her practice of bringing climate change into her general practice. “Every day is different in GP-land, and you never know who’s going to walk through your door and what you’re going to talk about.
“I try to weave it naturally into conversations… If I’m talking to someone about asthma, I might talk about the risk factors. Things like cold air, exercise, smoke, dust, gas stoves and I’ll also say, ‘we know that asthma is worse because of climate change, it is a risk factor’.
“Other times, I bring it up pretty directly, mostly during mental health consults. When I’m assessing people for their mental health concerns, one of the things I ask is ‘Are you worried about your planet? Is this something that worries you?’
“Eco-anxiety is really big out there. As doctors, we’re not really assessing that problem if we’re not asking about that question.”
In 2020, CAHA ran a survey showing that some professional health professionals believe that climate change is a high risk subject to discuss with their patients, and that they’re concerned about the negative reaction they might get.
I asked Wylie about this. Her reply: “It’s very rare for me to get a negative reaction… Over time, I’m less and less worried about going there. The impacts of climate are becoming increasingly obvious.”
She added: “It does help that I do have a lot of cues in my room. I’m wearing a badge right now that says ‘Doctor Concerned About Climate Emergency’ and I wear that to work all the time.
“I’ve got a whole shelf of posters as well. All my patients know that I care about this, and it hasn’t stopped me having work – I’ve got a three week waiting list! So, it’s not a negative. We don’t have to be scared about talking about it. And in fact, it’s our job to do so.”
One last tip? “Give yourself permission. Remember that we’re trusted messengers and so we can use that voice.”
Talking to management
Dr Ben Dunne is a specialist cardiothoracic surgeon at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. He has been advocating for the new Royal Melbourne Hospital to be all-electric, which is as yet unfunded.
“Like it or not, the two drivers for anybody with the very difficult job of running a hospital is cost and patient safety,” he said.
“If you can frame sustainability as a financial benefit or a patient safety way, that’s the language that they speak.
“It’s been very helpful for us to be able to demonstrate that environmentally sustainable care is financially sustainable care. For instance, if you are not doing unnecessary testing, you’re not spending that money and you’re not generating the carbon footprint associated with those tests.
“Next, it’s a little bit about the reputational risk to the hospital or the institution. There is a shift happening across the country. People accept that we need to start moving forward. Being seen as a climate laggard is increasingly damaging to an organisation.
“Finally, showing them that this is what their staff want.” In Dr Dunne’s work, they did this via circulating a petition amongst staff, and educating senior staff to get them onboard.
One last tip? “Start with something small and easy, which will save a bit of money. Don’t underestimate the power of small wins to generate some hope and momentum.”
Talking to colleagues
Carol Ride founded Psychology for a Safe Climate in 2010 by putting out a public call for like-minded psychologists and psychotherapists.
“Quite a number of people turned up, which was really quite gratifying,” she told the webinar.
The group started to coalesce around a shared aim to understand the psychological factors which influence the difficulty of accepting the reality of climate change, and can lead to denial.
“We actually unpacked our own processes of coming to terms with climate change, [looking at] how we’d compartmentalised our knowledge of climate change from our denial.
“We also looked up the literature, which wasn’t really around climate denial at that stage, but about generally why we deny things, why we are frightened of reality and how we break things into knowing and not knowing.”
This process led to their 2013 booklet (updated in 2016), Let’s Speak About Climate Change.
One last tip? “It can be hard to have deep conversations with people who are colleagues, but when they have, they feel relief and also a much deeper bond with the colleagues.”
Watch the webinar
This webinar was the launch of CAHA’s Healthy Conversation series, a monthly webinar series where we bring community together to talk about all things climate and health. Our next session will deal with strategic imagination for the future, on 26 July 2022. RSVP here!
See Croakey’s archive of articles on health communications