How will health services survive climate change impacts on rural and remote populations?

Climate change threatens to impact the lives of Australians living in rural and remote regions, through increased intensity of rainfall and tropical cyclones, high-fire danger days, drought and heat wave.

Scientists also predict agricultural viability will be compromised by drier soils and the unpredictability of extreme weather events, and exposure to air pollutants will increasingly impact population health, according to research published in the Australian Journal of Rural Health.

It is predicted that climate change effects will lead to increases in:

  • Physical injury;
  • Heat-related illness;
  • Nutritional disorders;
  • Infectious diseases;
  • Mental health issues;
  • Cardiorespiratory illnesses;
  • Skin cancer;
  • Food security;
  • Water security; and
  • Vector-borne diseases.

Medical practitioner researchers from the University of Notre Dame in Wagga Wagga, NSW, interviewed health service managers working in rural and remote areas, in order to determine their opinions of climate change impacts and strategies to strengthen the health service response.

There will be a need for pharmacists and other healthcare practitioners to adapt to climate change pressures.

The majority of respondents (90%) agreed that climate change would impact the health of rural populations in the future with regard to heat-related illnesses, mental health, skin cancer and water security.

And most participants identified the following population groups as being most vulnerable to the health impacts of climate change:

  • Farmers;
  • Homeless persons;
  • The elderly;
  • Children; and
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People.

However many (72%) reported there is scepticism regarding climate change among both health professionals and community members – hampering their ability to strengthen health services in order to prepare for future climate challenges.

It was also discussed that there is a greater need for public health education about the impacts of climate change among staff and the community in local health districts.

“The role of health services in providing education about the health impacts of climage change is well recognised,” say authors Dr Rachel Purcell and Dr Joe McGirr.

“The need for health professionals to be aware of the health impacts of climate change has begun to be recognised in the policies and professional development activities of postgraduate training colleges and public health bodies.

“[Health service managers’] recommendations for strengthening the capacity of rural health services are integral to shaping the response of the rural health sector to climate change.”

There are several organisations including health practitioners with the collective goal of preparing for climate change and advocating for pro-environmental policies.

Most participants identified children and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People as being some of the most vulnerable to the health impacts of climate change.

Pharmacists for the Environment Australia (PEA), for example, is involved in climate change advocacy and late last year became a member of Climate and Health Alliance.

The Climate and Health Alliance is a coalition of healthcare stakeholders who wish to see the threat to human health from climate change and ecological degradation addressed through prompt policy action. 

As a member of the Climate and Health Alliance, Pharmacists for the Environment Australia says that it recognises “health care stakeholders have a particular responsibility to the community in advocating for public policy that will promote and protect human health.”

Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) is another active organisation that says one of their primary concerns is the health effects of climate change on humans and the biosphere on which humans depend.

“Global warming and climate change have serious implications for human health globally,” says the DEA in its May 2017 submission to the Federal Government’s discussion paper, Review of Australia’s Climate Change Policy.

“It is increasingly recognised that climate change is only one facet of a planetary health crisis; deforestation, air pollution, ocean acidification and biodiversity loss all pose grave threats to health,” they argue.

“Climate change threatens to further exacerbate problems in these domains. If the current trend continues, there is a real danger that efforts will be insufficient to prevent run-away global warming, which will have disastrous social, economic and health consequences.

“The mining and combustion of fossil-fuels, in particular coal, also have direct adverse effects from emission of toxic substances and pollution with particulates.

“The burden of repair of the environment is being passed to the next generations.”

Australian Journal of Rural Health 2017; online 17 August