UK health services unprepared for climate change

Major new health alliance calls for action to save NHS

Is the UK healthcare sector prepared for climate change?

UK health services are currently unprepared for the risks posed by climate change, warns a major new health alliance launching this week.

In an unprecedented move, the heads of the UK’s-leading health institutions have come together to urge the Government to put into place action plans to ensure that the public, and the health systems they rely on, are able to respond.

In a letter to Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Alliance highlights that only 18% of clinical commissioning groups, and only one third of NHS providers, have adequate plans in place to adapt to climate change.

The Zika Virus epidemic in South America, and the impact of heatwaves in Europe, including in the UK, clearly demonstrate the devastating effects that result when the public and the health systems they rely on are unprepared for, and overwhelmed by, new challenges

The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change warns that extreme weather events like flooding and heatwaves, including the recent Hurricane Katie, which are becoming more intense and frequent as the climate changes, pose direct risks to people’s health and systemic threats to hospitals and health services.

From increased air pollution to the spread of disease vectors like mosquitoes; climate change is at the root of many health risks. Simple measures to tackle climate change, like walking or cycling instead of driving, will improve health outcomes and reduce the financial burden on the NHS.

Up to 14% of emergency service stations, and 8% of healthcare buildings in England, are currently operating in flood risk zones, meaning that as many as 357 fire, ambulance and police stations and 2,000 hospitals, care homes, and GP surgeries are at risk of river and coastal flooding after accounting for local flood defenses.

Heatwaves, which will become more frequent and severe as the climate changes, are also major public health threats.

During the 2003 European heatwave 15,000 people died in France alone, many of them isolated elderly people, as infrastructure, including electricity grids, transport networks and hospitals became overwhelmed. By 2010, a worse heatwave caused fewer deaths following an overhaul of the French health authorities’ strategy.

“Ensuring our NHS doesn’t fail as a result of the threats we face is vital,” said John Ashton, president of the Faculty of Public Health.

“The Zika Virus epidemic in South America, and the impact of heatwaves in Europe, including in the UK, clearly demonstrate the devastating effects that result when the public and the health systems they rely on are unprepared for, and overwhelmed by, new challenges.

We see first-hand what happens in A&E departments when severe weather hits. Elderly people, pregnant women and children can be especially vulnerable and are often the first to get into difficulty

“France now has an action plan in place which reduced the 2010 heatwave deathtoll. Let’s not wait for disaster on this scale to strike the UK before we are properly prepared.”

President of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, Dr Clifford Mann, added: “We see first-hand what happens in A&E departments when severe weather hits. Elderly people, pregnant women and children can be especially vulnerable and are often the first to get into difficulty.

“Flooding, in particular, makes homes uninhabitable and displaces large numbers of people. Those who rely on home care services to support them lose their independence. Even temporary displacement can result in long-term physical and psychological damage.”

The alliance is now calling on the Government to ensure that public infrastructure is resilient to climate change risks by working with clinical commissioning groups, NHS providers, and local authorities to ensure they are able to implement robust adaptation plans and report on them annually.

It highlights the severe floods this winter that disabled major infrastructure in the North of England. Army trucks were stationed at a hospital in Lancaster to act as ambulances after flooding at an electricity sub-station and the closure of all the road bridges cut the city off from the power grid and blocked all but one access route.

As with other public health threats; doctors and nurses are coming together to call for stronger, smarter measures to tackle climate change

The alliance warns there are limits to adaptation, however, and, as the doctors, nurses and allied healthcare professionals they represent know, prevention is better than cure.

Janet Davies, the Royal College of Nursing’s chief executive and general secretary, said: “As with other public health threats; doctors and nurses are coming together to call for stronger, smarter measures to tackle climate change.

“By providing their patients with small-but-important changes in their lives that benefit their health, healthcare professionals can also play a significant role in reducing the financial pressures on the NHS and the wider impacts of climate change.

“Through their one-to-one contact with their patients, health professionals are uniquely placed to help people understand the range of benefits that come from these small changes."

The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change founding members are: Royal College of General Practitioners, Royal College of Physicians, Royal College of Nursing, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Royal College of Emergency Medicine, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Royal College of Anaesthetists, Climate and Health Council, Royal College of Psychiatrists, Faculty of Public Health, Royal Society of Medicine, The Lancet, British Medical Association and the British Medical Journal.

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