12 November 2019.

The Sax Institute held a roundtable in Sydney this October to discuss the health impacts of climate change and the important work that is already happening across Australia’s healthcare industry for reducing emissions.

Jointly organised by the Sax Institute and the Human Health and Social Impacts Research Node at the University of Sydney, the roundtable brought together more than 40 experts in the field, including researchers, practitioners and decision makers.

The aim was to build on issues raised in a special climate change issue of the Sax Institute journal, Public Health Research & Practice, which received a highly positive response. The roundtable was an opportunity to hear more about how Australia’s health system is responding to the future health impacts of climate change – with issues ranging from heat stress and threats to food supply, to the increased transmission of mosquito-borne diseases and higher rates of mental illness.

Dr Ellie Black from the South Eastern Sydney Local Health District (SESLHD) spoke about how they’ve already begun assessing climate-related health impacts for their region, with heat waves and childhood asthma marked as potential threats. In response, the SESLHD has created an environmental sustainability plan to identify health service priorities and help patients, staff and services adapt to climate change risks.

A more sustainable health care system

As well as discussing health responses, the roundtable also addressed the thorny issue of the health sector’s contribution to the problem. At present, 7% of Australia’s total carbon footprint is attributed to the health care industry, and 44% of those emissions are from hospitals.

Ms Carmen Rechbauer, Chief Executive of HealthShare NSW

Ms Carmen Rechbauer, Chief Executive at HealthShare NSW, spoke about the challenges and opportunities for health sector organisations to reduce their impact. Every year HealthShare NSW serves up 24 million hospital meals, supplies 39 million tonnes of clean linen, and transports 240,000 public hospital patients. Ms Rechbauer told the roundtable they’ve saved 205 million litres of water each year through using more efficient washers, while food waste has been dramatically reduced thanks to the My Food Choice program, and plastic water bottles on patient side tables are now made from 100% recycled plastic.

Meanwhile, the NSW government has set a target of net zero emissions by 2050, and NSW Health is already looking at ways to play their part. The roundtable heard about NSW Health’s Senior Executive Development Program’s challenge to lessen the impacts of environmental change on health, which generated some innovative recommendations such as water-refilling stations to reduce staff plastic use, and ‘Bikes in Hospitals’ that could potentially generate power packs.

As for actual waste reduction in hospitals, Ms Sarah Jane Waller from the Agency for Clinical Innovation (ACI) said it was time to move from “platitudes to practice.” She pointed out that the perioperative setting (ie; before and after surgery) uses vast amounts of energy and produces excessive waste – estimated at over a quarter of all hospital waste. In response, the ACI has run a Green Theatre Workshop to bring together NSW hospital staff and start actioning sustainability in the operating theatre.

What next?

While change is happening, roundtable attendees agreed that the health sector needs to be moving faster, with more collaboration and less working in siloes. It was also agreed that the health impacts of climate change need to move from a fringe concern to a core public health issue with dedicated leadership and coordination.

As Dr Neil Hime, Senior Policy Analyst at NSW Health put it: “It’s hard for me to think of an aspect of human health that doesn’t have the potential to be impacted … the most vulnerable people in our communities need health protection, as they will be the people who are impacted by climate change the most.”

Sax Institute Head of Evidence for Action Division Ms Sian Rudge, who opened the roundtable, said that the many ideas put forward on the day highlighted just how much is already being done in this important space across the health care industry. “It’s exciting to see so many different initiatives that are already making a difference in the health sector. We hope that the roundtable will inspire many new connections between health professionals and researchers to find new ways forward for health in the face of climate change.”

Read the Public Health Research & Practic climate change issue that inspired the roundtable, with papers that address climate change, health and wellbeing, the potential risks of climate change and allergy in Australia, and addressing the carbon footprint of health organisations.