By Jackie Taylor

THE healthcare sector isn’t one which necessarily springs to mind when you think of the climate crisis. But as the dust settles around COP26, our understanding of how climate change affects health is consistently growing.

As physicians and surgeons, we have a responsibility to safeguard and alleviate suffering. Rapid but equitable changes are needed if we are to meet outlined emissions-reduction targets, but there is much to be learned as we work towards establishing health systems and services that are kinder to the planet.

As one of Scotland’s largest employers, the NHS has a vital role to play in helping Scotland transition towards becoming a Net Zero society by 2040. From disposal of surgical materials and medicines, patient and visitor travel to the catering delivered on sites across Scotland, there is a lot of work to be done.

We can all make a difference. At NHS board level, sustainability work must be prioritised, supported, and adequately resourced by all departments. At an individual level, healthcare professionals must be assisted in making greener decisions about what medical products they use in line with carbon intensity – such as asthma inhalers and anaesthetics.

The pandemic demonstrated the great innovation and adaptability of our governments, health service and communities. Vaccines were created and rolled out at an unprecedented rate and scale, innovative solutions were implemented across healthcare services, and we adapted to new ways of living and working with less travel and more online interactions.

Our climate and health policy group, which involves cross-college representation from our faculties, lay advisory board, and committees, have developed policy positions on two key areas we believe are vital to addressing the health impact of climate change.

The first, a sustainable food system, has a unique part to play in the future of our planet and people. Around a fifth of the UK’s domestic greenhouse gas emissions come from the food system. therefore we must create one that can feed us in a sustainable way. This will require radical steps to review and implement policies and support the food system. The entire pathway must be redesigned, from land use and agriculture to packaging and distribution.

The second: a sustainable health service outlines what we believe governments and individuals can do to decarbonise our health service. This includes the need to integrate climate impact into all NHS and healthcare recovery plans with a clear roadmap and monitoring to achieve net zero.

For real change to happen, activity must be taken at all levels of the healthcare system – including by government, health boards, hospital departments, GP practices, care homes and hospices – and by healthcare professionals themselves, including those working in private practices or for private healthcare providers.

An innovative, forward-thinking approach to how we can adapt our way of life through how we deliver our health services will help achieve climate targets, while also producing huge positive health and economic outcomes. By focusing investment in a healthier and cleaner future, we can produce new jobs, cleaner air, better diets, and more active societies and simultaneously help alleviate significant pressures faced by our healthcare workers.

Jackie Taylor is President, Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow