DEA's new Executive Officer: Planetary health; how can doctors engage? 


The Rockefeller Lancet Commission on Planetary Health- Safeguarding Human Health in the Anthropocene Epoch describes planetary health as the health of human civilisation and the natural systems on which it depends. 

This is well and good - but what does it actually mean for the health profession? How could doctors harness the growing support in other sectors for planetary health to protect human health and the environment? 

Today humans are living longer than at any time in recorded history. But the gains in maternal and child mortality and against infectious diseases have come at the expense of the planet with over-consumption, exploitation of natural resources, unsustainable dependence on fossil fuels and natural assets to feed, transport, and house ourselves. The harms we continue to inflict on our natural systems have been described as a threat to our very existence as a species. 

Planetary health began as a scientific exploration into this dilemma. This might be a weakness in many nations who do not prize science and evidence based policy. Therefore planetary health must also continue as 'practice' in order to be realised within our generation. 

The Commission report analysed all these well known challenges and defined gaps and opportunities in our knowledge, governance systems, and the way we think of and measure prosperity or success (imagination), to overcome our current predicament. These are the same themes the medical profession could potentially contribute to in order to build lifestyles that will ensure healthy people and planet. 

First, we need to be asking and funding the right questions to build the evidence base. Planetary health is a trans-disciplinary 'subject' and some of the most urgent challenges to rapid and widely acceptable change are in defining and communicating the links between human health and natural systems. Clinical and public health doctors with expert focus on current health challenges can continue to explore the links within practice, physiology, or public health and the environment. The Lancet Planetary Health, BMJ, Geohealth, MJA and general publications such as the Economist who  seek and support Planetary Health material. 

Second. Building planetary health governance implies for doctors an improved way of organising ourselves. Underpinning this is communication. Doctors and health professions could actively engage in forums that are not their usual comfort zones - while building their own networks of effective communication, education and exchange. Planetary health is about working with people who are not from your specialisation. For doctors it could for example be about learning and engaging beyond your known specialisation while robustly educating and exposing a new generation of clinical researchers and leaders to the professional benefits of building local and national networks in media, advocacy, law, or communication. Business, arts, politics, and infrastructure planning also need information and exchange with key health leaders to be able to work for health. The University of Sydney is attempting to mainstream planetary health between all its departments. 

Finally, planetary health is not about a mere utopic wish of elite medical journals and donors. It is an opportunity for every global citizen to engage and build on all the aspirations and commitments previously made in global health and environment to protect our planet and therefore ourselves. It is a challenge to our imaginations (as a species) to make good of our often vocalised commitment to intergenerational equity. In Australia this should include tangible respect of the special role indigenous communities play in understanding, and protecting the natural environment.

The map of Planetary Health is currently being drawn. Everyone can and should challenge and engage. No doubt many naysayers will continue to challenge evidence. Therefore partnerships in and outside the health profession must be sought to confront doubt with the question: what is a better alternative? 

Planetary health is a bold way to understand our world, define its problems and act truly collectively. The unique position and power of the medical profession to influence society and government to adapt lifestyles and policies that will protect health and planet for generations to come - is crucial.


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