Open Forum: Future proofing our health system one young doctor at a time


In about eighteen months’ time, I’ll finish my medical degree and will begin my first day of work as a doctor. Many of the things that make me nervous about that prospect have been haunting medical students for decades: what if I fall asleep in the tea room on a night shift and miss an urgent page? What if I accidentally read a patient’s x-ray backwards? What if my boss yells at me the first time I have to wake her up at 3am to ask about a patient? But there’s a whole set of anxieties about my future career that I suspect most of my predecessors never even contemplated.  

These anxieties centre on the fact that climate change is getting more serious by the day; and that it threatens to undermine the past 50 years of gains in public health. These anxieties were made worse by the UN’s latest warning that the planet is now being hit by a new climate-related disaster every week. 

Climate change makes people sick in all sorts of ways. Heat takes a huge toll on your heart, lungs, and kidneys — especially if you’re very young, or very old. Drought disrupts our food systems, and jeopardises the wellbeing of people who live on the land. 

Strange new weather patterns let disease-carrying mosquitoes thrive in strange new times and places. And all those climate disasters that the UN’s just warned us about don’t simply cause death and injury on the day they happen; they also ravage communities’ basic infrastructure, leaving them vulnerable to long-term disease outbreaks, malnutrition, and mental health problems.

 In short, climate change will keep me and my fellow future doctors extremely busy throughout our careers — but not in a way that we’re equipped to deal with. 

 I’m currently halfway through an obstetrics rotation, where I spend my days observing doctors and midwives steer women through their pregnancies and usher babies into the world. I’d expected to spend this rotation buoyed by the hope and optimism inherent in seeing new babies born. 

But, while there has been many a joyful moment over the past few weeks, I’ve struggled to shake a constant niggle in the back of my mind as I watch these tiny humans come into the world. What kind of world are they going to grow up in? Will climate change deny them the chance to live safe, healthy lives? 

 As I’ve contemplated these questions, I’ve found myself getting angry. Angry at the uncertainty of these babies’ futures. Angry on behalf of anyone who’ll live beyond the year 2050. Angry at the generations that have preceded us, and failed to act on the years of warning signs that a climate crisis was coming. Angry that modern medicine isn’t enough to protect people against decades of failed energy and environmental policy. And angry that my generation of future doctors is going to spend lots of time in emergency departments and general practices patching up the damage that climate change has wrought upon our patients; and that our medical schools are largely failing to prepare us adequately for this reality. 

 I’m far from alone amongst future doctors in my anger and anxiety about the climate crisis and its impacts on human health. In fact, Australian medical students have been leaders in this space. 

Students at medical schools around the country have taken it upon themselves to approach their Deans about having a greater focus on climate change and health in the curricula; to ask the hospitals where they have work placements to get better at waste and energy management (given hospitals contribute a hefty 7% to Australia’s carbon footprint); to advocate to their MPs for more ambitious emissions reductions policies. 

 Last year, the Australian Medical Students’ Association announced it would be divesting its own investments from fossil fuels, and called on other medical organisations to do the same. Students also work side-by-side with medical professionals in organisations like Doctors for the Environment Australia, which highlights the close connection between our health and that of the planet. 

 Medical students and young doctors — like most of our generation — recognise that climate change threatens our way of life. Our concern as young people is compounded by our concern for the lives of our future patients, whom we feel ethically bound to try and protect. Modern medicine is a wonderful thing, and future doctors are determined to do their best to look after their patients. But (as with most things), climate change prevention is far better than searching for a cure. 

 Our best chance of a safe future is action — urgent action — to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Only then can we help protect human health from the effects of climate change. 

Georgia Behrens is a third year medical student and a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

First published in Open Forum on 17 July 2019


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