Nurses and midwives' vital role in fight against climate change

Monash Lens

At the recent COP27 in Egypt, healthcare workers joined forces against climate change. They demanded a phase-out of fossil fuels, the primary contributor to carbon emissions responsible for global warming.

  • Zerina Lokmic-Tomkins

    Associate Professor, School of Nursing and Midwifery, Victorian Heart Institute (VHI)

We've known about the impacts of climate change on human and planetary health and wellbeing for well over 20 years, but what's less commonly known is that climate changes can't get better for many generations.

As a population, we'll need to get used to a new "normal" of more extreme droughts, floods, bushfires, air-quality issues, heatwaves, and reduced nutritional value of crops.

A recent health warning on mosquitos due to flooding and heavy rainfall from Victoria's Deputy Chief Health Officer alerts us to protect ourselves against mosquito-borne diseases such as the Ross River virus, and Barmah Forrest virus this summer. For some people, these diseases are permanently disabling.

This means that in the coming years, we'll see increased presentation of people to healthcare services for climate change-related treatments.

For the healthcare system and its workforce, already severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, this means additional pressures that will impact healthcare systems' ability to deliver world-class care.

Yet, our collective response to climate change's impact on the environment presents an unprecedented opportunity for global health and building hope for a better future.

How can the healthcare community help?

So, how do we as a healthcare community help keep hope alive and stay on course to achieve well below 2°C of global warming, the goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement, which is essential for preserving a more liveable environment?

It's critical that state and federal governments and healthcare organisations act now to develop policies and strategic plans. These strategic plans need to be delivered in partnership with our most significant stakeholder - the community members.

Climate-resilient healthcare systems must be built in all parts of Australia, particularly in urban areas where the urban heat island effect will exacerbate the heatwave-related impacts.

Building national capacity programs for the healthcare professionals to respond and manage climate change-related impacts on health, disasters, and risk reductions is imperative.

Healthcare workforce engagement and empowerment are essential to these plans.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, few could foresee the enormous pressure on the healthcare workers who were at the frontline of managing the pandemic's impact.

Nobody was prepared for what eventuated - extraordinary demand on the health workforce that resulted in a significant loss of healthcare workforce from healthcare services.

A seated female medical professional with a stethoscope around her neck, holding an elderly person's hand

There's time to prepare

With the climate-associated environmental changes, we still have time to prepare and engage the healthcare workforce.

The focus should on supporting the nursing and midwifery workforce, the largest healthcare workforce globally and locally.

Aside from strength in numbers, nurses and midwives have extensive community connections, reaching the most marginalised communities that are often most affected by climate change-related events.

Often, they may be the only care provider in remote and rural areas.

For centuries, nurses and midwives have proven their value in holistically providing care, patient advocacy, injury prevention, health promotion, education, research, and policymaking.

Nurses and midwives are visible in the community's lives from when a person is born to when they die. In return, they've earned the community's trust.

This trust can be leveraged to help communities develop resilience, take individual actions to adapt to changes in our environment, and maintain a focus on preserving healthy environments through environmentally responsible actions to protect community health.

Nurse and midwives are the linchpins

As state and federal governments and healthcare organisations seek to address the increasing pressures from environmental changes on the community's health and the healthcare systems, they must remember to include nurses and midwives at the discussion tables.

These linchpins of healthcare systems are uniquely positioned and equipped to build and walk multidisciplinary bridges, given that they routinely coordinate with different groups in the health system to deliver patient care.

Their contribution can influence policy, professional standards, ethical codes, curricula programs, and organisational advocacy for environmentally sustainable supply chains, circular economy models, and better clinical and non-clinical waste management practices.

Most importantly, they can steward a paradigm shift in health to shepherd the world towards a safer and healthier future.

What I learned during COP27 is that everyone, no matter who they are, has a sphere of influence. As healthcare professionals, we have an opportunity to use this to promote hope in humanity's ability to preserve healthy environments.

We owe this to those we serve in our societies.

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