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Health leaders urged to empower the sector on climate action

Introduction by Croakey: As global health leaders vow to keep pushing for stronger climate action in the wake of “shameful” COP26 outcomes, the Glasgow Climate Pact has intensified pressure on the Australian health sector to ramp up climate action.

This follows the Federal Government’s failure to commit at COP26 to developing resilient and low carbon, sustainable health systems, and failure to set a net zero target for Australian healthcare.

Next month, the NHMRC Partnership Centre for Health System Sustainability (PCHSS) will host a webinar exploring ways in which to improve the healthcare system’s sustainability, featuring some positive case studies.

Writing below for the Croakey Conference News Service, Nicole MacKee previews the webinar, which will be held online on 2 December 2021 from 1pm AEDT. Register here and on Twitter, follow the hashtag #HealthClimateSolutions21.


Nicole MacKee writes:

Health leaders and services have been urged to create “an authorising environment” so that staff are empowered to address the climate crisis in their everyday work.

Professor Tony Capon, Director of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute, told Croakey that leadership was needed to support healthcare workers across the system to feel authorised to address climate change in their work.

It was critical to build capacity among healthcare professionals, both pre-service and in-service, Capon noted, adding that it was also important to integrate sustainability considerations into health service planning and development, and existing accreditation systems.

“We can’t have this off to the side as another ‘silo’ of activity,” Capon said, noting that it was also critical to document and share best practice, highlighting the important work of the Climate and Health Alliance in facilitating such practices.

Leaders needed to create “an environment in health services so that staff are empowered to address climate change in the everyday work that they do”.

“As health workers, we urgently need to bring a ‘planetary consciousness’ to our work – bring the planet into health policy and practice. For people to be healthy, we need a healthy planet.”

As well as climate change, Capon said the health sector needed to engage with other environmental concerns.

“There is biodiversity loss, ecosystem degradation, pollution,” he said, noting the need to focus on the “ecological determinants of health”.

“We need an eco-social approach to complement bio-medical.”

Capon will speak at next month’s NHMRC Partnership Centre for Health System Sustainability webinar: ‘Exploring the Nexus of Climate Change, Human Health and Health Care Sustainability’.

NHS action

Also addressing the webinar will be Dr Nick Watts, the NHS Chief Sustainability Officer, an Australian doctor and former Executive Director of the Lancet Countdown.

Watts has been prominent at the COP26 talks. He told a recent Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences webinar that the NHS had long cared about climate change, sustainability and sustainable development, noting its positive response to the 2008 Climate Change Act.

“Last year … things have stepped up; not just a gear shift, but an order of magnitude, in terms of how the NHS is thinking about climate change, how we are building it into the core of everything we do, and how much resources we are throwing into it,” he said.

In October 2020, the NHS adopted two key targets for the health system, a net zero strategy by 2040, and an 80 percent reduction target by 2028.

“That makes me uncomfortable because it’s soon and that’s exactly what it’s designed to do – make people uncomfortable, make sure that we understand that it’s real, tangible and that we should and will be held accountable for it,” Watts said.

Capon said the UK’s long-term commitment to developing a sustainable healthcare system had helped ensure a strong focus on health at the COP26 after momentum has been building successively through the COP process over a number of years.

“The UK Government is out in front on sustainable healthcare because they got started quite a bit earlier than other countries,” Capon said.

Core business

While the UK is leading the charge in healthcare sustainability, Monash University’s Tony Capon said that Australia was still “on the starting blocks”.

“Each state and territory jurisdiction is engaging in some way [in sustainability initiatives], but it is regrettable that we are yet to see strong national leadership. I guess this, in essence, reflects the lack of national leadership on climate change more generally,” said Capon, who will address the health system’s preparedness for climate change in Australia in the PCHSS webinar.

Capon said the first critical issue in driving a more sustainable healthcare system was to ensure all health workers understood that climate change had physical and mental health impacts.

Then, he said, there were three key actions needed:

  1. Preparing health services for the health impacts of climate change. For example, he said, health systems needed to be prepared for peaks in demand caused by extreme weather events like floods, cyclones, bushfires, and heatwaves.
  2. Get our own house in order. “We have to urgently transition to net zero healthcare in Australia, like they are doing in the UK,” he said.
  3. Raise awareness of the health co-benefits of climate action. Transitioning to a more sustainable way of living will bring both environmental and health benefits, Capon said. “Less carbon emissions and less pollution will impact health,” he said. “Similarly, active mobility – walking and cycling – results in less carbon emissions and better physical and mental health, and a plant-rich diet is better for individual health as well as for the planet.”

Capon said: “Climate change needs to be part of the core business for health services and, frankly, that is not currently the case in Australia.”

Read more about the net zero ambulance here.

Eminent speakers

The two-part webinar will hear from a range of eminent speakers, including Professor Lesley Hughes, Distinguished Professor of Biology and Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research Integrity & Development) at Macquarie University, and Laureate Professor Peter Doherty, Patron of the Doherty Institute, who will address ‘The effect of climate change on human health and healthcare system sustainability’.

Other speakers in this session are:

Addressing the second part of the webinar – ‘The impact of healthcare delivery on environmental sustainability’ – are:

The webinar will also hear from Uncle Chris Tobin, a Darug Elder, who will offer an Acknowledgement of Country. He told Croakey that pollution and destruction of Country was bound to impact upon people’s health.

“It’s crucial to our survival that we change the way we do things,” he said.

A report recently released by the Lowitja Institute also explores the wide-ranging impacts of climate change on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ health and calls for their voices and knowledges to be privileged in climate responses.

The webinar will profile the complex challenges the climate crisis presents for the health system. Already dealing with escalating demands from the impacts of climate change on physical and mental health, the system itself is also part of the problem.

In Australia, the health system accounts for around seven percent of the nation’s carbon footprint, while globally the system contributed to 4.6 percent of emissions. On top of this, up to 40 percent of care provided in Australia is unnecessary, providing little or no benefit to patients, and harming the planet.

Climate killers

In an interview with Croakey, Professor Peter Doherty said the health impacts of the climate emergency were vast.

“The climate emergency [is a] problem that impacts on just about everything that impacts on health,” said Doherty, who will discuss the impact of climate change on infectious disease spread during the webinar.

As the Earth warms, Doherty said, mosquito-borne infections move away from the Equator and up into higher regions.

“If you think of Kenya for example, you get malaria on the coast, but you don’t get it up around Nairobi, but whether than will continue or not. And that’s a real problem,” he said.

Increasing drought will impact upon water and food security, Doherty added, noting that this could also fuel political instability in some regions.

Even with optimistic climate change scenarios, Doherty said, Australia was likely to see many more 50-degrees Celsius days, which would cause an increase in heat-related deaths.

Professor Lesley Hughes has spoken extensively about the impact of heatwaves, which she said had been dubbed the silent killer.

“Extreme heat and heatwaves kill more Australians than all other weather-related events combined,” she said in an Australian Institute of Health Innovation webinar earlier this year.

“Heatwaves don’t leave the sort of scars on the landscape that a flood or a fire does, but, nonetheless, they are the most important climate-related killer.”

Hughes noted that there was growing engagement of health professionals in climate advocacy, and adaptation. Last month, more than 50 health and medical groups sent an open letter to the Prime Minister urging him to engage with the Climate and Health Alliance’s ‘Healthy, Regenerative and Just’ in developing a national strategy on climate and health. 

Promoting sustainability

During the 15 minutes I was interviewing Associate Professor Forbes McGain, five single-use infection control gowns were discarded.

“There goes another one,” said the Melbourne intensive care physician, who was counting the number of gowns disposed as he stood outside the ICU. “The average nurse in ICU will go through about 20 gowns a day in each shift; all thrown away.”

And the impact of COVID-19 on medical waste has been enormous.

“Disposable equipment has gone through the roof,” said McGain, who works at Western Health and is Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne.

“At Western Health alone, we are talking 3-5,000 gowns a day, every day for 18 months. And that’s just physical waste of one item, there are also gloves, N95 masks, face-shields, and everything else.”

McGain, who has been working to drive more sustainable practices in healthcare for more than 12 years, said: “We live in a very linear eco