Feature: Refining healthcare policies can help fight the climate crisis

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 healthcare policies can help fight the climate crisis.

Climate change and healthcare are inextricably linked, and research shows that we could prevent an estimated 74 million deaths over the next 80 years by optimizing climate policy.

By understanding our impact (be it negative and/or positive) and by constantly reviewing and refining our healthcare policies, we can play a key role in helping combat the global climate crisis.

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.

Simultaneously, the health of people, animals and the planet are directly affected by the rising global temperature.

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, untangling the complex web of cause and effect and risk versus benefit when it comes to climate change and health is not always straightforward.

In an attempt to simplify this quest, there are a number of ways in which one can look at the undeniable interdependence between climate change and healthcare, and how one is negatively impacting the other. Here’s three:

Water shortage

Millions of people around the world rely on natural water bodies like lakes and rivers for sanitation, household use and land irrigation. But these water bodies are drying up due to the Earth’s rising temperature.

What does this mean for us?

Water scarcity will not only lead to food shortage and malnutrition, but when linked to high temperatures, it also increases the risk of non-communicable diseases such as stress (cardiovascular risk), reduced availability of fresh foods (metabolic syndrome), and kidney damage, according to our 2020 report on Protecting Health in Dry Cities.

Therefore, populations living in arid regions are more at risk of suffering from poor health due to climate change.

Communicable diseases

Caused by global warming, extreme weather conditions like frequent heat waves, floods, drought and tornadoes ultimately lead to forced mass migrations. 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 it clear that we do not have the infrastructure or capacity within global healthcare systems to withstand the direct or indirect pressures of another global pandemic, thus strengthening the argument for the prevention of its underlying causes.

Healthcare as a major polluter

When thinking of environmental polluters, our immediate thoughts go to aviation, shipping or electricity production industries. However, we must not forget that healthcare, as a huge and socioeconomically important sector, significantly contributes to greenhouse gas 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?

Governments must act now, and here are some recommendations on how they can do so:

  1. Invest in sustainable, nature-based solutions. In dry cities around the world where the effect of water shortage and high temperatures is more drastic, street trees, vegetation, irrigated green space, and green technologies (such as biofilters and constructed wetlands) can cool urban microclimates through shading and evapotranspiration and can control stormwater pollution. Nature-based solutions also provide opportunities for physical activity, passive recreation, and social connection, which may contribute to the prevention of non-communicable diseases and improve mental health. (WISH 2020 report on Protecting Health in Dry Cities)
  2. Health organisations, including ministries and large NGOs, should engage with scientists from various disciplines such as climatology, ecology, social sciences, biology, and modelling, to design and prioritize policy-oriented research, including strengthening and evaluating adaptation of the health systems. (WISH 2020 report on Climate Change and Communicable Diseases). This will strengthen healthcare ecosystems and equip them to track and respond to outbreaks of new diseases and future pandemics.
  3. Empower nurses to take up leadership roles so they are directly involved in creating climate-resilient healthcare 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. Nurses comprise 60% of health professionals worldwide, working in many clinical and public health sectors. Their collective ability to change the trajectory of climate action is unparalleled, and they have immense potential to create and disseminate messages about the climate that are acceptable to those who are doubtful about climate change, due to the trust they inspire 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. But there is hope if we act fast and work together on a national and global level.

The healthcare industry, given its existential mission to help and heal, should be the leader, the convener and the driver in the fight against 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. Through designing policies that prioritize research, the healthcare sector can reach its full potential through the fulfilment of its oath to first do no harm and to improve patient and global public health.


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