Media release: Medics – We must better prepare health services for heatwaves

Doctors have today called for a comprehensive government plan to better prepare the health system, including emergency hospital departments, to cope with the extra admissions from the projected increases in heatwaves.

Medical group, Doctors for the Environment Australia, which is supported by a Nobel laureate and recipients of the Australian of the Year award, said we must heed the findings of a new study that shows Australia’s major cities could expect highs of 50C by 2040.

Spokesperson Dr David Shearman said the Federal Government must urgently implement a national coordinated plan to save lives–in the 2014 Melbourne heatwave, for example, there were 167 extra deaths.

“We must ensure we are well prepared for future heatwaves with a comprehensive national plan that incorporates appropriate investment in our hospitals and ambulance services to cope with the inevitable increased demand, community education, early warning systems and monitoring of at risk groups in the event of an anticipated heatwave and city planning to mitigate heat rises.“

Those at particular risk of heatwaves are the elderly and the very young, those with chronic illness and out-door workers.

“Our major cities have experienced heatwaves events where health services have been severely stretched– We must ensure we are well prepared for future heatwaves with more staff, more hospital beds, more available ambulances, to meet the effects of the anticipated deadly heat shocks that include dehydration, heat stress and heat stroke. “

Heatwaves to date have seen:

  • Up to 25% for ambulance emergency call outs. For example, a 14% increase in ambulance callouts was observed during a heatwave in Sydney in 2011. During the 2009 heatwave in Victoria, ambulance services saw a 25% increase in total metropolitan emergency cases, with a 46% increase observed over the three hottest days.
  • Up to 60% increase in emergency department resuscitation cases
  • An overall increase in presentations to our emergency departments
    During the 2009 heatwave, emergency departments in Victoria observed an eight-fold increase in direct heat- related presentations and an increase in overall deaths ranging from 13-24%.
  • Power outages that interrupt the supply chain for medicines and vaccines, many of which require refrigeration.

“We must not underestimate the damage that heatwaves can have,” said Dr Shearman. “People will die every time a major heat wave occurs. It is for good reason that it’s often described as a ‘silent killer’.

“Yet despite the number of record hot days in Australia doubling in the past 50 years, and predictions of heatwaves becoming hotter, longer and more frequent, there is no coordinating national policy.

“Of course, the best way to address the existential threat of heatwaves is by reducing greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change in the first place.

“Mitigating further climate change with a rapid shift to renewable energy will be cheaper in the long run than the cost of deaths and illness, as well as the financial burden on the health care system.”


Media contacts
Dr Mark Monaghan, 0439 980 649
Emergency physician and a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia

Dr David Shearman, 0481 154 805
DEA’s Hon Secretary and Emeritus Professor of Medicine University of Adelaide



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