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Addressing climate change impacts on human health requires educated and prepared health professionals

Addressing climate change

@MonashUni – The global pandemic has shown us just how interconnected human health and the environment are. It is also showing us how rapidly we can respond at scale to combat the spread of the pandemic. Yet climate change represents the greatest threat to public health and ironically, the very sector trusted with preventing illness and protecting human health generates a huge environmental footprint.

A new Australian study calls for urgent education for sustainable health and care to equip current and future generations of health professionals with critical competencies to mitigate our environmental impact.

Leading medical journal The Lancet argues that climate change is one of humanity’s 21st century greatest threats to health. Indeed, the recent apocalyptic climate induced 2019-20 bushfires that devastated southeast Australia showed us just that. ‘The bushfires provide stark evidence of the health impacts of climate change, with 34 lives lost directly in the fires, and more than half of the total Australian population exposed to heavy smoke pollution for weeks’ states world leading planetary health expert, medical doctor and Monash academic Professor Anthony Capon. ‘We witnessed more than 400 premature deaths among people in the south east of the country and the mental health consequences are still unfolding’. The 2020 Australian bushfire Royal Commission warns us of more to come advising that Australia must prepare for a future shaped by extreme climate.

Getting prepared is something the authors are devoting much attention to. Last year, the authors wrote about preparing the health sector for a climate emergency and discussed re-thinking language on climate change. The health sector is harming human health through climate change contributing greenhouse gas emissions, air pollutants, use of scarce water and contamination of land and waterways. This is being further compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic related waste derived from single use personal protective equipment.

Internationally, the healthcare sector lags behind most other industries in reducing its carbon footprint (Salas et al 2020 BMJ) with the The Lancet reporting the Australian healthcare sector contributes 7 per cent of our total emissions – this is equivalent to the carbon emissions generated by all the people in South Australia.

Authors of a recent British Medical Journal publication argue for the substantial benefits for the health sector in managing their environmental footprint. For example; committing to a rapid transition to a net zero carbon emissions target can mitigate climate change impacts, promote public health through reduced air and water pollution, earn cost savings by eliminating waste and inefficiency, and demonstrate leadership in the global effort to limit global heating to 1.5°C (Salas et al 2020 BMJ).

Prof Capon and colleagues maintain healthcare professionals globally have an ethical responsibility to lead efforts to enhance environmentally sustainable behaviour and practice in the health sector. ‘Educating healthcare workforce to address these challenges is critically important. Climate change and health needs to be an essential part of the curriculum for all Australian health professionals’ he states.

A new Australian study conducted at Monash University on health profession educators’ teaching practices reveals that while more than 90% of educators understood the issues, two-thirds reported not knowing how to teach sustainable health and care. Clearly, we need to educate the current and future healthcare workforce to curb the growing environmental damage caused by the healthcare sector.

Globally, and across Australia, higher education is moving towards social and environmental responsibility, with many universities embracing the UN 2030 Agenda and starting to take action on climate change. Ensuring education is current and relevant helps prepare healthcare graduates for working responsibly.

University educators are recognising this need and working to integrate education in sustainable health and care across all health professions education and training through a whole-of-health sector approach. Education for sustainable healthcare encompasses teaching and learning approaches that develop students’ knowledge, skills and values based on the interdependence of ecosystems and human health.

Monash’s Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences have begun implementing a faculty wide education for sustainable health and care framework to prepare the forthcoming healthcare workforce for climate change and to reduce health systems’ environmental harm in the future.

So, what can we all do to prepare our current and future healthcare workforce?

  • The healthcare sector can transform the current workforce by advocating and adopting sustainable health practices and behaviours.
  • Healthcare decision makers can demonstrate leadership through valuing and building strong environmental citizenship through education, training, policy and practice. For example, leading through commitments to net zero emission pathways within healthcare organisations and across the wider sector.
  • The university sector can start immediately to equip current and future healthcare professionals by encouraging interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration to embed sustainable health and care education across health professions education, policy and practice.
  • Senior leadership can champion and embed interdisciplinary sustainable health and care education across all health professions, degrees and courses.
  • University educators can seek out professional development and curriculum resources to strengthen teaching of sustainable health and care education across all health disciplines, and amplify the voices of students who want to learn and advocate for sustainable health.

Over the last year in Australia, the bushfires and pandemic have highlighted the need to prepare our healthcare workforce for a rapidly changing landscape. The path we are currently on, with no change in course, paints a terrifying picture. We need to change course and to do so rapidly. We need to start investing in the current and next generation of health professionals to ensure they are equipped with critical skills and competencies to remedy current environmental and climate change related impacts, and collectively shape a future sustainable healthcare sector. As healthcare professionals, educators and researchers, it is a matter of care, integrity and urgency that we prioritize education in this field to safeguard the physical, social and mental health of our global community.

Other academics involved in this research include Jorja Collins,  Liza Barbour, Margaret Simmons, James BonnamyBethany CarrChanika IlangakoonPatricia Schwerdtle and Rosie Wotherspoon.

This research was funded by Monash University, Faculty of Medicine, Nursing & Health Sciences, Learning and Teaching Research Grant.

By, Gitanjali Bedi Lecturer & Senior Learning Coordinator, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Gabrielle Brand Associate Professor, Nursing & Midwifery.

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