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 (CEO of the World Innovation Summit for Health) explains how refining health policies can help to 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 help combat the global climate crisis by understanding and refining how we impact the world.
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 temperature directly affects the health of animals, people, 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.
However, it is not always easy to unravel 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 this all 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 polluter
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 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).
- Ministers and large NGOs in health should work with scientists from different disciplines, such as biology, ecology, socio sciences, and modeling, to develop and prioritize policy-oriented, research-oriented research. (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.
- Encourage nurses to become leaders and get involved in creating 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. The global 60% of health professionals working in various clinical and public health areas are nurses. Their collective ability to influence the course of climate action is unprecedented. Nurses have the potential to communicate messages about climate that are acceptable to people who are skeptical about climate change.
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 on both a global and national level.
Given its existential mission of healing and helping others, the healthcare industry should be the leader, convener, and driver in the fight against climate changes.
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. By designing policies that prioritize research, healthcare can reach its full potential. This is possible by fulfilling its oath to first do nothing and to improve patient and public health.