Climate Change – sustainability in GP clinics

29 May 2019

In the recent post-election discussions, a fair amount of attention has been paid to the Morrison Government’s record on climate change policy, and how the issue will be addressed over the next few years. Environment and health groups like the Climate and Health Alliance and Doctors for the Environment Australia are busy ensuring that politicians and the media are aware of the significant health risks associated with a warming climate. While the high-level political decisions play out, it’s also important to think about what the medical profession can do to reduce environmental harm. 

In March, the AMA released a new Position Statement Environmental Sustainability in Health Care. The Position Statement outlines the impact of the health sector on the environment, as well as suggesting some key areas for improvement. Overall, it recommends the establishment of an Australian Sustainable Development Unit, similar to the highly successful model implemented in England’s National Health Service.     

When thinking about greening the health system, it’s tempting to focus on hospitals, which are responsible for 44% of health care emissions. However, despite its small contribution, general practice does play a part, constituting 4% of health care emissions according to a 2014-15 Australian study. A central recommendation in the new Position Statement is directed at all medical practitioners (GPs and hospital-based doctors alike) – to draw environmental concerns into decision making processes at all levels. What this might look like in individual practices will vary depending on the processes and procedures already in place, but there are a number of resources GPs can draw on for inspiration.

The Australian Conservation Foundation and Doctors for the Environment’s GreenClinic Guide outlines a number of simple changes that clinics can implement to become more sustainable. It’s catered specifically for a Victorian audience, but provides useful tips on lighting, energy, paper use, waste and water that can be applied in any practice.

The NHS’ SDU has also produced a short and simple guide for GPs, called 5 to Survive for GPs. It emphasises the importance of understanding the health impacts of climate change, communication with patients about sustainable diets and transport, buying less resource-intensive products, and focussing on integrated models of care.

A 2017 article published by the RACGP provides some high-level advice to GPs on sustainable practice, as well as outlining how climate change will influence the health of patients presenting to GPs for medical care. This includes dealing with injuries and health problems associated with increasingly severe weather events; mental ill-health in regions experiencing drought, flood and bushfire; and an increasing incidence and severity of allergies and heat stress.

With the health threats of climate change becoming more and more evident, small-scale changes in practice and attitude are more vital than ever.