With the health of our planet increasingly under the spotlight, the healthcare profession could help it heal. Rebekah Fraser examined the ways nurses can lead environmental sustainability.
Earlier this year, more than 900 New Zealand healthcare workers signed an open letter to the Government calling for urgent policy around sustainability.
The letter sent a strong message that the health sector is ready to lead the country to a sustainable and healthy future.
Counties Manukau Health sustainability officer Debbie Wilson said there was a “natural alignment” between health, healing, and the environment.
“You are in a simple sense extending your sphere of practice and scope of influence of caring for the patient, whānau, and community, to include the planet.”
Nurses could both lead and advocate for more sustainable healthcare services, she said.
“We are regarded as leaders by members of the public and have successfully advocated for the treatment of many other significant public health issues in the past.”
There had been an “undeniable link” between environmental factors to health outcomes, she said.
If you examined air pollution, health professionals could help promote the infrastructure, like increased activity and low-carbon transport methods, leading to real change.
“The positive health outcomes as a result of such interventions relate to increased levels of activity, and lower amounts of air pollutants known to contribute to respiratory disease, thereby demonstrating a win-win for health and the environment.”
Wilson said some might argue that climate change was the greatest threat to health in the 21st Century, which was another reason for the healthcare sector to be actively involved.
“The impacts of climate change disproportionately affects those from lower socio economic communities and we have a duty to ensure healthcare services are delivered in the best and most appropriate and equitable way whilst considering the wider implications of our actions that have potentially long term impacts.”
New Zealand Nurses Organisation professional nursing advisor Suzanne Rolls said health professionals had a part to play in sustainability.
“The day-to-day products, we use a lot of them. We need to start with ensuring that the product in front of us, we’re doing the right thing with it.”
This could be as simple as placing recyclable items in the right bin.
Wilson said there were a number of practical things nurses could do immediately to affect change.
The first was to use durable and reusable products and to get into the habit of taking them with you.
“Plastic pollution is a global concern, one that has grave implications for ecosystems and people.”
Taking active transport options where possible was another idea, as was eating less processed food and more fresh fruit and vegetables.
Wilson said nurses could also join a ‘green team’ or set one up within their workplace.
Rolls said District Health Boards and the Government also needed to take responsibility.
“We need that design in the healthcare system itself. The responsibility needs to go to the producers, not just consumers.”
Medications and equipment used in the healthcare needed to be examined, she said.
“We need to weigh up the true cost too. Something could be reusable but has the water consumption to wash it and the sterilisation cost been factored in to that?”
She said education for both healthcare workers and patients was also important.
“We want to minimise the environmental harm, while also making sure we don’t compromise patient safety or quality of care. We need to work within our responsibilities.”
Wilson agreed more education on climate change, mitigation and adaptation for all healthcare professionals was required.
“Climate change is an equity issue, should be integrated into all healthcare curricular and could be readily adopted as clinical quality projects. In doing so, healthcare professionals would be well equipped to partake in all environmental sustainability activities at work and at home.”
Rolls said nurses believed that there was more that could be done around a sustainable healthcare system.
“There’s lots to achieve. We want to be part of the solution.”
Wilson said people could become “quite despondent” when considering the health of the environment.
“But rest assured, individual actions count. Just consider the impact one school girl, Greta Thunberg, has had on the climate change movement. Remember, ‘manaaki whenua, manaaki tangata, haere whakamua (care for the land, care for the people, go forward).”