The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that the human-induced climate catastrophe is a “grave and mounting threat to our wellbeing”. With a changing planet comes changing threats to our wellbeing. People’s health – and the infrastructure that supports it – will be increasingly affected by adverse weather events and the slow-onset effects of climate change.
As experts from Monash University explain, our future wellbeing is a complex issue. There are questions of new diseases, and old ones making a return, alongside the direct impacts of flood, fire and rising temperatures, disrupted education and supply chains, and the simple fact of living longer. Without serious intervention, the health risks we face in 2030 may be unrecognisable from today’s.
The most common health conditions will evolve
Dr Yuming Guo, professor of global environmental health in Monash’s School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, explains the potential physiological impact of climate change. “Climate change increases the temperature, which is directly related to the emissions and body function – for example, causing increased blood pressure and decreased lung function, and affecting metabolic and renal function,” he says.
These health issues can snowball. Professor Arthur Christopoulos, Monash’s dean of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, says: “You apply that to the next generation and you’ve got a real issue. Because on top of that, climate change is going to influence every aspect of this conversation. You’re affecting water quality and sources, food security, shelter and where you can access food. It’s a combination of factors.”
In Australia, the greatest health burden is currently cardiovascular disease – a condition known to be exacerbated by extreme heat and air pollution. But, Christopoulos says, other conditions are hot on its tail. “Because of air quality issues, respiratory diseases are going to go up. Because of the longevity aspect, age-related neurological diseases will increase – dementia is now the third-leading cause of disease burden. These global health burdens are not new, but they are going to get worse.”
The next generation will require more complex care
Alongside physiological issues exacerbated by climate, the incidence of psychiatric disease will continue to rise, especially in the next generation, Christopoulos says. “Depression and anxiety we’re going to be seeing a lot more,” he says. “Partly, they were already on the rise. But Covid, the world’s reaction to it, and isolationism are all factors.”
Professor Sophia Zoungas, head of Monash’s School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, says climate change presents a two-fold challenge: responding to acute health crises, such as communicable disease outbreaks after floods, while continuing to effectively manage pre-existing chronic conditions.
Natural disasters arising from climate change, such as fires and floods, present immediate logistical challenges to people with chronic disease, as they struggle to access vital medications and care. We also need to consider the spiralling impacts of extreme physical and mental stress caused by these events on underlying chronic conditions.”
says professor Sophia Zoungasnone
“The Covid pandemic has seen an increase in public health and healthcare expenditure. While that’s understandable, with climate change potentially driving more frequent disasters, we need to build such responses into our future plans. We need to ensure equitable access to healthcare, especially given the system is already under stress.”
Healthcare will need to change to deal with unprecedented demand
Increases in health concerns will inevitably require more healthcare. But while there will be direct concerns, such as a rise in diseases, they are not the only factor. Guo says weather events, climate-related sociopolitical unrest and increasing poverty will also have indirect impacts, such as supply and resourcing issues, including of medical practitioners themselves.
The healthcare workforce is only projected to grow. But there is no workforce training without education and without access to education. There’s been chronic underinvestment. We need a greater push to develop the next-generation workforce for dealing with the healthcare needs of our society.”
says professor Arthur Christopoulos, Monash’s dean of pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciencesnone
According to Zoungas, sufficiently addressing those needs might mean investing in a whole new model. “Codesigning healthcare with the community will help us build a system with processes and goals that actually mean something important to patients,” she says. “We also need to improve the way we talk about health and share evidence with the public. We need super communicators who understand the science and can frame it in a way that makes sense to communities.”
Monash’s experts say we can learn from the past as we move forward. Technology, digitised healthcare and new modelling can all help us build a more sustainable healthcare system to face these unprecedented challenges.
“We are learning a new language in healthcare,” Zoungas says. “The pandemic has taught us how agile and proactive the medical sector can be. Clinical guidelines are being updated faster using living evidence models, telehealth has revolutionised routine healthcare, ethics approvals for research are being fast-tracked. It feels like an opportunity to move forward with a renewed can-do attitude and try to apply these learnings system-wide.”