by James Sterrey, medical student at The University of Sydney, and DEA NSW Metropolitan Student Representative
I am usually quite a good student, attending lectures, opportunistically taking notes and generally going beyond the scope required. But earlier this year, on the 21st of March, I abandoned my model student identity and wagged a full day of lectures. What could be so appealing I hear you all asking in unison? Yes, the irresistible event was indeed the Climate Change, Sustainability & Health workshop run by Dr Kate Charlesworth of the Australasian Faculty of Public Health Medicine. The workshop, facilitated by the Royal Australian College of Physicians, was an event for physicians to further their professional development and it was through Kate’s generosity that three DEA student members could attend.
After an introduction, attendees were asked to perform a simple exercise. In this exercise people arranged themselves on a scale of confidence regarding communication of ‘climate change and health’, with one side of the room being zero confidence and the other ten. Out of the thirty odd doctors the distribution was widely spread, some 2s, a principle cluster in the 5-6 region and fortunately I was not alone in the 8-10 region. These environment and health literacy levels are consistent with what is generally encountered in the broader medical community and emphasise the importance of professional development opportunities such as this workshop.
With the hope of turning us all into ‘tens’ Kate then gave an insightful presentation on climate change and the tangible threats it poses to health. She cleverly illustrated the responsibility borne by health care workers to advocate for environmental stewardship as a means to improve public health. This all made stark sense to me, but too often there exists a prevailing attitude within the medical community that such advocacy or sustainable practice is the arena for conservationists and ‘greenies’. This phenomenon has often left me perplexed, why would people who are interested in improving human health apparently neglect to address environmental factors that contribute to individual and community well-being? Enter the concept of ‘Moral Offsetting’. This is where a person who performs good moral acts, such as healing the sick, feels immune (due to gained offsets) to other moral requirements demanded of them, such as using resources sustainably. After Kate introduced the concept of moral offsets I began to observe it in clinician tutors, colleagues and even myself.
It was then time for lunch, and my word does the RACP know how to cater, this alone should entice you all to attend the workshop. Post prandially we learnt about how some in the medical community are bucking their moral offsets and beginning to address sustainability in health care. The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) was used as an example. In 2008 the NHS established its Sustainable Development Unit (SDU), a group tasked to develop tools, policy and research to fulfil the NHS’s potential as a leading sustainable and low carbon organisation. A plethora of sustainable practices have since been implemented by the SDU and include the sourcing of renewable energy, reduced NHS related vehicle use and even recycling pharmaceuticals. So is anything similar happening in Australia I hear you ask. Well, sort of. Some hospitals have volunteered targets for reduced waste and energy consumption, and the NSW government does have a Waste Reduction and Purchasing Policy. But in comparison to the NHS these measures are baby steps in the right direction. This part of the workshop illustrated that systemic change within health is possible and efficacious with the right initiative.
So, I’m just a medical student, how can this workshop help me implement sustainable practice when my clinical haunt Nepean Hospital doesn’t even have a sustainability officer? It’s been a while since the workshop and I still don’t have an answer.
Fortunately, though, Kate ended the workshop with information and resources useful for people in our position; there were detailed analyses of food and health, medical product life cycle assessment, sustainable education in medical schools and my favourite, tips for running the workshop. This last point is very significant. Even as students we have the ability to educate and present information from the workshop. The ‘training the trainers’ feature of the workshop in the right hands is very effective and I’m pleased to report that fellow DEA member Tom Morely has put it to practice in Student Grand Rounds at Nepean Hospital. And we did all this without a sustainability officer!
The Climate Change, Sustainability and Health workshop is well worth a day of truancy from your academic calendar. You will meet inspiring doctors, gain insights into current health practice and learn about the future of health care delivery. You will also walk away with a new skill set and a valuable cachet of resources ready to be deployed on any unsuspecting moral offsetter. My rambling description of the event does not serve as a sufficient surrogate for your attendance and indeed I have left some of its most interesting content out. Interested? I thought so. The next such workshop is on the 17th of August at the RACP headquarters in Sydney with others following thereafter. Interested interstate DEA student members can contact me to see what can be worked out with Kate. Should you want more information or just to bah-humbug this piece, please contact me at email@example.com