RCGP2019 - Combatting climate change and improving health go hand-in-hand

  • UK Medical News
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By Rachel Pugh

Climate change is an issue affecting the fundamental determinants of health, but GPs can use ‘greener practice’ to help reduce the impact of global warming on the planet, whilst simultaneously improving the health and resilience of their patients and the sustainability of the NHS.

This message was at the heart of a presentation at the RCGP Annual Conference in Liverpool by a group of Sheffield general practitioners who have formed Greener Practice - an community of more than a dozen GPs, GP trainees, foundation doctors and medical students who meet regularly to work out how to respond proactively to climate change (1) and encourage others to do the same.

Leader of the Greener Practice group, and RCGP South Yorkshire and North Trent Climate Change Champion, Dr Aarti Bansal acknowledged that healthcare professionals and the general population alike have struggled to understand how to best to respond to the threats posed by global warming. She explained: “As GPs, we are in positions of trust. Framing climate change as a health issue makes it more likely that we will be successful in engaging individuals and society to make changes and also it makes the actions feel more possible.”

Immediate actions that GPs can undertake as individuals include carrying out a green impact audit on their practices, improving their recycling, reducing inhaler usage, increasing the use of social prescribing, addressing fuel poverty, switching to more sustainable energy providers and improving waste labelling.

GPs can also lead by example. Dr Honey Smith - a member of Greener Practice - is known for cycling to work and to home visits. Another GP, Dr Ollie Hart is employed to take a Sheffield-wide lead on developing physical activity across the region. More suggestions are available in the RCGP Green Impact for Health toolkit (2).

The group’s actions have included enhancing the Sheffield medical school curriculum making the sustainability agenda mandatory. A PhD student at Sheffield University is also looking at green prescribing and the impact on mental health.

The advantages of Greener Practice:

*   Immediate impact on health as better air quality improves respiratory health, active travel reduces obesity and improves mental health

*   Protection for future heath by reducing climate change threats such as extreme weather events, heat stress, vector-borne disease, food shortages, air quality and increased migration

*   Saves money by cutting energy bills, prescribing bills and procurement costs, which can be reinvested to improve NHS sustainability

*   Reduces workload because of the benefits of investing in health promotion, patient empowerment and lean service delivery

The RCGP is the first of the colleges to declare climate change to be an emergency and the Greener Practice group called upon the college to dedicate its next annual conference to sustainable practice.