The effects of climate change on the healthcare industry are undeniable and the impact of healthcare on our climate is just as significant – although we don’t seem to talk about it as much. Sultana Afdhal is the CEO of the World Innovation Summit for Health. She explains how refining health policies can help combat the climate crisis.
The relationship between climate change and healthcare is inextricable. Recent research suggests that we could prevent an estimated 7 million deaths by optimizing climate policies over the next 80 year.
We can play a crucial role in addressing the global climate crisis by understanding our impact (negative and/or positive), and continually reviewing and improving our healthcare policies.
The healthcare industry – including hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, and medical supply chains – is a significant producer of potent pollutants such as methane, hydrofluorocarbons and anaesthetic gases into the atmosphere.
The rising global temperatures are simultaneously affecting the health of humans, animals, and the planet.
Climate change has triggered issues such as the spread of water- and vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever, the disruption of people and animal habitats, thawing of Earth’s permafrost, and forests being at a higher risk of fire, pests and disease, all of which require our urgent attention and action.
It can be difficult to untangle the complex web of cause-and-effect and risk-versus-benefit when it comes down to climate change or health.
This quest can be simplified by looking at the inextricable interdependence of climate change and healthcare and how it is negatively impacting each other. Here’s three:
Millions of people worldwide rely on natural water bodies like rivers and lakes for sanitation, household use, irrigation, and land maintenance. But these water bodies are drying up due to the Earth’s rising temperature.
What does all this mean?
Water scarcity will not only cause food shortage and malnutrition but also increase the risk of non-communicable disease such as stress (cardiovascular Risk), reduced availability and damage to the kidneys (metabolic Syndrome), according to our 2020 report Protecting Health and Health in Dry Cities.
Arid regions are more vulnerable to poor health from climate change.
Global warming has led to mass migrations due to extreme weather conditions, such as frequent heat waves, floods and droughts. This will, in turn, lead to the faster spread of infectious diseases and the introduction of novel pathogens in areas where people don’t already have immunity, resulting in potential transcontinental pandemics.
Covid-19 has made clear that the global healthcare system does not have the capacity or infrastructure to withstand the direct and indirect pressures of another pandemic. This strengthens the argument for preventing its underlying causes.
Healthcare as a major pollutant
When we think of environmental polluters, we immediately think about shipping, aviation, and the electricity production industries. We must not forget that healthcare is a significant and socioeconomically important sector that contributes significantly to greenhouse gases emissions. In fact, healthcare’s climate footprint is equivalent to 4.4% of global net emissions.
Now we have established that climate change is a public health emergency, given its direct impact on the social and economic determinants of health – what can we do about it?
The government must act immediately. Here are some suggestions:
- Invest in nature-based, sustainable solutions. Street trees, vegetation and irrigated green spaces are all good options for cooling urban microclimates. Nature-based solutions can also offer opportunities for physical activity, passive recreation and social connection. This may help to prevent non-communicable disease and improve mental health. (WISH 2020 report: Protecting Health in Dry Cities).
- Health organizations, including ministries and large non-governmental organizations, should engage scientists from different disciplines, such as biology, ecology, socio sciences, and modeling, to plan and prioritize policy-oriented, research that will strengthen and evaluate adaptation of health systems. (WISH 2020 Report on Climate Change and Communicable Diseases. This will help strengthen healthcare systems and equip them with the tools to respond to future pandemics and new diseases.
- Empower nurses to assume leadership roles in order to directly contribute to the development of climate-resilient health policies. The BMJ’s 2021 report on Nursing’s pivotal role in global climate action highlights the ideal position and potential of nurses in initiating and mobilising change. Worldwide, 60% of health professionals are nurses. They work in many areas of public and clinical health. Their collective power to alter the trajectory of climate action is unmatched. They have tremendous potential to create and disseminate messages on climate change that are acceptable to those who doubt it. This is due to the trust they instill in local communities.
In a joint statement released last month, 200 medical journals warned that ‘despite the world’s necessary preoccupation with Covid-19, we cannot wait for the pandemic to pass to rapidly reduce emissions.’ Delaying taking serious steps to tackle climate change will lead us to a global economic crash. There is still hope if we act quickly and work together at the national and global levels.
Given its existential mission to heal and help, the healthcare sector should be the leader and the catalyst in fighting climate change.
While treating those affected by climate change is undeniably a vital role of our industry, there is definitely a lot more that can and should be done as preventative measures so that we don’t have to treat the damage, but stop it from happening in the first place. The healthcare sector can realize its full potential by designing policies that prioritize research.