NHS services are not geared up to deal with the potentially life-threatening risks of climate change, according to a new alliance of leading health bodies.
The newly-formed UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, which includes the Royal College of Nursing, medical colleges and bodies like the Faculty of Public Health, has called on ministers to take urgent action to ensure hospitals, GP surgeries and care homes are prepared for extreme weather events like flooding and heatwaves.
“Doctors and nurses are coming together to call for stronger, smarter measures to tackle climate change”
In an open letter to the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the group highlighted what it called the “unacceptable threat to the wellbeing of our patients”.
“More work is urgently needed to prepare the personnel, the systems and the facilities of the NHS, as well as other institutions involved in healthcare, for the implications of climate change,” the letter says.
It highlights recent assessments suggesting only 18% of clinical commissioning groups and a third of NHS providers have adequate plans in place to adapt to climate change.
Meanwhile, it points out more than 9.5% of healthcare buildings in England are in flood risk zones – a figure that is likely to increase.
The alliance flagged up severe floods in northern England this winter that saw army trucks acting as ambulances in Lancaster.
Other extreme weather in recent years has included heatwaves that claimed thousands of lives in Europe.
Dr Clifford Mann
“We see first-hand what happens in A&E departments when severe weather hits,” said Dr Clifford Mann, presidents of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine.
“Elderly people, pregnant women and children can be especially vulnerable and are often the first to get into difficulty,” he said. “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,” he added.
The group, which says it is “time to place health firmly at the centre of the UK’s efforts to mitigate climate change”, acknowledged there were limits to how much services can adapt.
It emphasised the need for more prevention work to boost public health generally.
“In the short-term, cost-effective interventions to address many of Britain’s largest heath challenges – poor diet, outdoor air pollution, physical inactivity, and obesity-related diseases – are available as part of the response to climate change,” says the letter.
RCN general secretary Janet Davies said it was about health professionals like nurses working closely with patients to help them make lifestyle changes,
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“As with other public health threats, doctors and nurses are coming together to call for stronger, smarter measures to tackle climate change,” she said.
“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,” she added.
The other founding members of the alliance are: the Royal College of General Practitioners, Royal College of Physicians, Royal College of Emergency Medicine, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Royal College of Anaesthetists, Climate and Health Council, Royal College of Psychiatrists, Royal Society of Medicine, The Lancet, British Medical Association and the British Medical Journal.