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Ontario Medical Review
May 02, 2022
Erin Horrocks-Pope
OMA Member Relations, Advocacy and Communications

Health-care sector must lead on climate action

Physicians discuss health impacts of climate crisis and explore solutions at OMATalks event

Physicians are natural advocates and stewards of health. But how can they continue treating the effects of climate change in patients without acting on the climate crisis itself?

“We have to have a shift on how we train doctors,” said Dr. Roberta Bondar, a panellist at the recent OMATalks event on climate change. “We have to have some kind of program to talk about climate change and then we have to talk about how we adapt to climate change and the kinds of things we need to do as a profession to try to minimize our footprint.”

Education is the “single most important” tool in addressing the climate crisis said Dr. Bondar, a globally recognized environmentalist whose advocacy for the planet began when she became Canada’s first woman and world’s first neurologist in space.

The Ontario Medical Association hosted the virtual panel on April 20, the eve of Earth Day, to discuss the role of physicians and the health-care sector in addressing the impact climate change is having on people’s health.

Moderated by CTV’s Avis Favaro, the OMATalks event ‘Healthy planet, healthy population’ also featured panellists Dr. Kim-Chi Tran, co-founder and co-chair of the OMA Green is Health Medical Interest Group and Dr. Mili Roy, Ontario chair of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and Green is Health member.

“Without environmental health, there is no way forward for human health,” said Dr. Roy, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Department of Ophthalmology. “And as stewards of health, we must act on climate. It's very simple — the well-being of our patients, our own loved ones and future generations really do depend on this.”

Dr. Tran, a urologist who works out of Scarborough Health Network, said air pollution caused by forest fires is an example of how climate change is impacting people’s physical and mental health.

“It affects people with pre-existing lung disease, children with less developed lungs, the elderly,” she said, adding that people displaced from their homes during environmental disasters could experience mental anxiety or stress and might not be able to access the health resources they need.

Research shows the health-care industry is a contributor to climate change, using disposables as one example. Dr. Bondar said Canada needs to develop stronger strategies for addressing the health impacts of climate change.

“They're the kind of things that will come and bite us in the heel if we don't really pay attention to them ourselves,” said Dr. Bondar about the environmental impacts of waste and pollution produced by the health-care system.

Panellists at the OMATalks ‘Healthy planet, healthy population’ virtual event, Dr. Roberta Bondar, Dr. Mili Roy and Dr. Kim-Chi Tran, spoke about the effects climate change is having on patient health, how the health-care sector is impacting climate and solutions to secure a greener future.

Physicians can influence climate action at all levels

Here are ways physicians can contribute toward a greener future:

  • Eliminate single-use plastics and other disposables where possible
  • Plant pollinator gardens at clinics and hospital
  • Encourage plant-based diets and nature for patients
  • Form or join green teams with other health-care workers
  • Include environmental training in medical education
  • Sign petitions and urge government to deliver on climate action

“There’s a history in previous fraught environmental struggles in which the voice of health workers has tipped the balance,” said Dr. Roy, adding that if physicians can work together with “urgency, energy and hope” there is great opportunity to make a real difference for the health of the planet and its people.

Written into Prescription for Ontario: Doctors’ 5 Point Plan for Better Health Care, the OMA and its members are calling on government to take immediate action on climate change and its impacts on human health and well-being.

“We've been ignoring the warning of scientists, land defenders, children holding up signs pleading for our collective futures,” Dr. Tran said. “...To fail at this task, we will be failing billions of human lives. Not just one.”

Watch the OMATalks: Healthy Planet, Healthy Population 

Photo credit: View of the Great Lakes from the International Space Station - NASA