The urgent need to transform healthcare education to address climate change
Climate change represents the greatest threat to public health, yet Australia’s health sector contributes to the harm through its large environmental footprint.
A new study calls for urgent education in sustainable health and care to equip current and future generations of health professionals with critical competencies to mitigate and adapt to these detrimental impacts.
Leading medical journal The Lancet argues that climate change is the greatest threat to human health in the 21st century. Indeed, the 2019-20 bushfires that devastated southeast Australia, and were amplified in intensity and duration by climate change, showed us just that.
“Those bushfires provide stark evidence of the health impacts of climate change, with more than 30 lives lost directly in the fires, more than half of Australia’s population exposed to heavy smoke pollution for weeks, and mental health consequences still unfolding,” observes planetary health expert and Monash academic Professor Anthony Capon.
“The bushfire royal commission warns us of more to come, and so Australia must prepare for a future shaped by extreme climate.”
Professor 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 the healthcare workforce to address these challenges is critically important,” he says. “Climate change and health needs to be an essential part of the curriculum for all Australian health professionals.”
The authors of the latest report have written about preparing the health sector for a climate emergency, and discussed rethinking language on climate change.
Ironically, the very sector trusted with preventing illness and protecting human health generates a huge environmental footprint. 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, with The Lancet reporting the Australian healthcare sector contributes 7% of our total emissions – this is equivalent to the carbon emissions generated by everyone in South Australia.
Authors of a recent British Medical Journal article outline the substantial benefits for the health sector in managing its 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.
The recent Australian study, conducted at Monash University, on health profession educators’ teaching practices, reveals that while more than 90% of educators understood the climate 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,” says one of the authors, Associate Professor Gabrielle Brand.
“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, including Monash. 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 through a whole-of-health sector approach.
Associate Professor Brand says sustainable healthcare education encompasses teaching and learning approaches that develop students’ knowledge and skills based on the interdependence of ecosystems and human health.
This year, the summer bushfires and pandemic have highlighted the need to prepare our healthcare workforce for a rapidly changing landscape, she says.
“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're 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's a matter of care, integrity and urgency that we prioritise education in this field to safeguard the physical, social and mental health of all Australians.”
Other academics involved in this research include Jorja Collins, Liza Barbour, Margaret Simmons, James Bonnamy, Bethany Carr, Chanika Ilangakoon, Patricia Schwerdtle and Rosie Wotherspoon.