Medical Observer Opinion: Why doctors must join climate war

Medical Observer Opinion: Why doctors must join climate war

By Dr Tim Senior


THERE are some things we pride ourselves on as GPs. We pride ourselves on being scientifically literate. We base our treatments on the best available evidence of the causes and treatments of ill-health. 

We pride ourselves on being able to explain and communicate complex ideas, enabling people to take action to improve their health. And we pride ourselves on being trusted. 

We are consistently among the most trusted professions: 80% of the population see a GP each year and discuss sensitive personal information with us.

It seems strange, then, that we are fairly quiet on something that poses the biggest threat to the health of our patients, yet the solutions are exactly those which will improve the health of our patients.

First, taking the lead from the science, there is ample evidence of the harm climate change will do to the health of our patients.

Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) has summarised this succinctly for GPs in its report Climate Change Health Check 2020. The evidence keeps coming — see the recent Lancet Commission into Health and Climate Change. 

It’s also clear that there are considerable health benefits from acting on climate change. 

You don’t need to mention carbon dioxide to recommend that people walk and use public transport instead of driving, though you may need to advocate for better public transport. 

You don’t need to mention climate change to see the evidence that mining and burning coal causes air pollution and has adverse health consequences. 

One of the criticisms levelled at climate scientists is that they haven’t been very good at communicating their findings, that people are confused about the science. 

This is the sort of thing we do as GPs every day. 

“Is this unseasonal bush fire caused by climate change?” is the same sort of question as “Is this transient ischaemic attack caused by my high cholesterol?”

(Answer: perhaps, but it doesn’t matter — we can reduce your risk of having another event by taking action). 

Every day we have discussions with people about the need to change behaviour and effective ways of doing so.

What’s more, because we see 80% of the population each year, we can have these conversations with a lot of people. 

We need to talk about the health benefits of decarbonising our lives. This means physically using our bodies more, eating freshly produced rather than highly processed foods. 

But it also means talking about transport and energy. 

We can create an environment for these discussions using posters and pamphlets in our waiting rooms — DEA has sent out 24,000 to GPs! Our patients tend to believe us because we are trusted. This trust also puts us in a strong position to advocate for policies promoting choices that can lead to an improvement in health. 

Without this, people are unable to act on the advice we give, and we are working with one hand tied behind our backs.

Doctors are often listened to by policy-makers more than other groups. We need to discuss the health consequences of climate change with everyone — the increase in droughts, bushfires and severe weather events, and the effect this has on the health, including mental health, of our elderly or vulnerable patients. 

This will put a severe strain on an already stretched health system. 

And then we need to discuss the health benefits of taking action.

The evidence is in. We have the skills to discuss the science with people. And we have the reach, and the trust too make a difference. 

As we might tell patients or politicians, there’s now no excuse not to act.


First published in the Medical Observer on 15 September 2015


Dr Tim Senior is a GP and a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia

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