Strategy should prioritise climate’s health impact

4 minute read

Currently the document is heavily weighted towards the sector’s impact on the climate, medical colleges say.

Medical colleges across Australian and New Zealand have called on the government to promise sufficient funding and resourcing in the face of a healthcare system unprepared for the climate crisis already at our door.

Following the end of the consultation period on the National Climate and Health Strategy, the RACGP and 12 other medical colleges have released a joint statement calling for urgent sign-off by the National Cabinet to get the show on the road.

It says the focus should be as much about the impacts of climate on health as it is about the impacts of health on the climate.

“The National Health and Climate Strategy must ensure it does more than just reduce health sector emissions,” the statement says. “It also needs to build stronger, healthier communities that are able to thrive in the face of climate change.”

The alliance, representing over 100,000 doctors, is campaigning through the Healthy Climate Future for a major shakeup of the healthcare system.

The group backs the strategy’s calls for reductions in health sector emissions but outlines the urgent need to prepare the sector for effects of imminent climate disasters, such as El Nino – the likes of which the World Meteorological Organisation has suggested has a 70% chance of happening again this year.

Speaking to The Medical Republic, Dr Kate Wylie, chair of the RACGP’s Climate and Environmental interest group, emphasised the importance of funding, $3.4 million of which is currently promised, to back the National Health and Climate Strategy.

“It’s really important that our government commits to ongoing and adequate funding for this process, otherwise it just won’t succeed,” Dr Wylie said.

“GPs across Australia and the world are seeing the health impacts of climate change every day. It is a health emergency, and our elected leaders need to act urgently.”

The RACGP has also released its own detailed response to the strategy.

“The RACGP absolutely welcomes the National Health and Climate Strategy as a positive step forward, but how well it can be enacted will depend on good support going forward and widespread education and consultation of the health sector,” Dr Wylie told TMR.

The college’s major feedback surrounded the strategy’s lack of focus on primary care and on the need for localised approaches to fit different contexts.

When it comes to measuring and recording practice emissions, the college wants to limit any extra administrative burdens on GPs by, for example, using data from the MBS or PBS.

Mitigation was a major focus of both the strategy and the RACGP’s feedback. The college noted the need for more specific priorities for each part of the health sector, information to prescribers on the environmental burden of drugs to accompany current information on effectiveness and cost and another push for a rethink of telehealth rebates for phone consultations.

The college also said the strategy needed clear priorities and to ultimately be informed by Australia’s experience of recent climate disasters.

“This is certainly one of those complicated, wicked problems, where the need for widespread consultation is hugely important. So everyone needs to be in the tent on this,” Dr Wylie said.

“There’s the federal and state jurisdictions, there’s the public and private health systems, there’s all the different types of health practitioners out there, all of whom need to understand that climate change is a health issue, and personally relevant to their health practice.”

Dr Wylie added that First Nations knowledge had to be incorporated into the strategy.

She said we could also learn from the international community, such as the NHS.

Emphasising the position of GPs as the bedrock of healthcare across Australia, she said that “if GPs were part of this governmental action, we would be really powerful allies in the community, showing the broader Australian community the importance of climate action to protect human health”.

Weighing in with its feedback to the strategy, the AMA also voiced concerns over the lacklustre consideration for the health fallout from climate change and lack of detail on strategy rollout.

“While ensuring the health care system is sustainable is an important component, the strategy needs to reflect that climate change is a health crisis, and preventing health impacts requires a whole-of-government approach,” it said in a statement.

“The strategy should be structured to prioritise a health-in-all-policies approach, with a clear vision on what the strategy should achieve.”

Acknowledging how far behind Australia is in its climate action, the AMA, like the RACGP, supported adapting the Greener NHS program to fit our health system.

Ultimately, while everyone seemed to agree that a national strategy to focus the efforts of the health sector’s climate action was a must, the current strategy raises questions that will need to be answered before any good can be done.

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