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How can the health sector contribute to climate action? Some ways forward…

Introduction by Croakey: A webinar recently hosted by the NHMRC Partnership Centre for Health System Sustainability (PCHSS) explored ways to improve the healthcare system’s sustainability at a time when a growing number of health systems around the world are working towards net zero targets.

As part of Croakey Conference News Service coverage of the event, our @WePublicHealth Twitter account shared some of the discussions about ways forward, as summarised below, while Alison Barrett live-tweeted the discussions for @CroakeyNews. Collectively, the #HealthClimateSolutions21 tweeters created more than 10 milllion Twitter impressions.

Suggestions included: tackling over-diagnosis and over-treatment, including unnecessary pathology testing; boosting climate health communications; privileging Indigenous knowledges; developing strategic alliances; and investing in more useful and timely data collections and analysis.


From @WePublicHealth and @CroakeyNews tweets:

The webinar kicked off with ABC reporter Sophie Scott as MC, an Acknowledgement of Country by Uncle Chris Tobin from Darug country, and introduction by Professor Jeffrey Braithwaite.

Uncle Chris Tobin said: “Concept of Country extends bigger, extends to our ancestors…All our heath decisions should be aware of that.”

The first session is about the effect of climate change on human health, the increasing demand for healthcare services and ways in which healthcare systems should adapt to the changing climate

Sustainability of our health care system is one of the biggest issues right now, says Sophie Scott. She adds: “This is going to be one of the most important meetings you will attend all year.”


Our future is in our hands

Professor Lesley Hughes, Macquarie University

Professor Lesley Hughes, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Macquarie University, is also a founding Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia.

She discussed the sixth report of IPCC assessment in August 2021 – key message: ‘climate change widespread, rapid and intensifying’ – and therefore we have to do something about it.

Earth temperature and ocean temperature increasing since 1850s. Bushfire seasons are becoming longer and more severe.

Projected changes in extremes are larger in frequency and intensity with every increasing increment.

Catastrophic events cannot be ruled out (for example, melting of permafrost, loss of arctic and glacial sea-ice, loss of coral reefs).

Silver lining from 6th assessment of IPCC = The window for effective action is closing rapidly but the climate future is still in our hands – Professor Hughes.


Bushfire impacts

Claire Sparke, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

Claire Sparke discusses some of the short-term impacts of the Australian bushfires of 2019 and 2020 – the worst in Australia’s history, both in intensity and longevity.

Assessed data from MBS, PBS and emergency department presentations to explore their short-term health impacts.

The 2019-20 bushfires saw an increase of 125 percent increase in rate of asthma presentations compared to previous year, and an increase in sales of inhalers for shortness of breath in January 2020 compared to previous year.

Bushfire-specific MBS mental health related items at around 500-600 services by week by mid 2020; however, she acknowledges it was hard to calculate with certainty due to COVID-related MBS mental health related items at the same time.

Not a lot of research occurring at present about long-term outcomes of bushfires.


Privilege Indigenous knowledges

Professor Ngaire Brown, Ngaoara

The next presentation is about ‘Social equity and climate change’ by Yuin nation woman, Professor Ngaire Brown, who has spent the past two decades developing extensive national and international networks in Indigenous health and social justice.

She runs Ngaoara, a NFP focused on Aboriginal child and adolescent wellbeing, including issues related to child safety, adolescent development, cultural education and building social capabilities and individual resilience and agency.

Says she thinks often focused on one aspect of climate change, and highlights the importance of the social determinants of health, and climate anxiety, in particular for young people and adolescents.

Climate refugees will be likely in future, especially from the Pacific Region. Will be difficult to move entire populations to other countries.

Professor Brown discusses “Systems Myopia” – short economic cycles, short political cycles, short funding cycles = short sighted planning, especially regarding climate.

We should be far more in-tune with not just impact of decisions made now, but for the next seven generations, she says.

“We have to come together to stop the degradation of the planet.”


Fewer tests

Professor Alexandra Barratt, University of Sydney

Barratt is a lead investigator on Wiser Healthcare, an NHMRC funded research collaboration to reduce over-diagnosis and over-treatment in healthcare, which was the focus of her presentation.

Example of thyroid cancer in South Korea between 1993-2011, where diagnosis of thyroid cancer went through the roof, but thyroid cancer mortality did not increase. Resulted in increased burden on healthcare.

Over-diagnosis tends to happen by overtesting, and is widespread.

Increased patients increases the carbon footprint. Interesting article published in The Medical Journal of Australia about the “carbon footprint of pathology testing”.

Carbon emissions per blood test are small, but because so many blood tests done each year, the combined emissions is huge.

“Jaw-dropping” says Barratt – 4.5 million vitamin D tests were done in 2020 – a 12 percent increase over 2018-2019, for little result.

Between 50 and 200 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year, just from Vitamin D tests in 2020.

Can we do fewer Vitamin D tests?


Preparation matters

Professor Tony Capon, Monash Sustainable Development Institute

He talked about ‘Preparing healthcare services for climate change in Australia’.

 

You can read some of Capon’s recent work here, ‘The 2021 report of the MJA–Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: Australia increasingly out on a limb’.

In good news though, Northern Sydney Local Health District are the first in Australia to include a planetary focus in their framework.

What should health services do?