Climate change has broad effects on health systems, says medical journal

When you have to shut down a hospital operating room because there’s so much wildfire smoke that your instruments can’t be kept sterile, you know climate change is affecting healthcare.

“It actually happened in my operating room,” said Dr. Alika Lafontaine, president of the Canadian Medical Association.

“These things are out of the norm, so you don’t think about them – until they happen.”

Lafontaine echoed a research warning published Tuesday by one of the world’s top medical journals.

The Lancet concludes that, worldwide, extreme heat is already exacerbating the effects of heart and lung disease, worsening pregnancy outcomes, disrupting sleep, increasing injury-related deaths and limiting people’s ability to work and live. to exercise.

Infectious diseases such as malaria have a longer season to spread.

Heat-related deaths increased by 68% between 2017 and 2021, compared to 2000-2004. Nearly two-thirds of the world’s countries experienced more days of very high or extremely high fire danger between 2001-2004 and 2018-2021.

Canada is not immune. Studies suggest that the 2021 heat dome in British Columbia that resulted in 619 deaths would have been nearly impossible without the effects of climate change.

The health care response to climate change requires national coordination, says Dr. Alika Lafontaine. (Canadian Medical Association)

Lafontaine said the healthcare system must change to adapt to the challenges ahead. The system needs backup capability. Health professionals need more transferable accreditation, so Saskatchewan nurses could help in British Columbia. Physicians need to be more aware of the growth of weather-related illnesses, such as Lyme disease.

“It changes the mix of diseases that exist,” Lafontaine said.

But above all, he said, the health care response to climate change requires national coordination.

“One of the major gaps in the response to the climate crisis, as it relates to health care, is the creation of a national secretariat,” he said.

Floodplain health facilities are vulnerable

Someone, he said, should gather information about what’s happening to the system during extreme events — like when a wildfire cancels surgeries. Otherwise, every emergency is another punctual.

Ian Culbert of the Canadian Public Health Association agrees. Common licensing standards are important, he said.

“That way, nurses from Ontario could be deployed to help with flooding in Nova Scotia.”

WATCH | Pulmonologist on how climate change affects health:

Climate change has ‘massive’ impact on health, expert says

From the challenge of growing food in a warmer climate to increased air pollution, the health effects of climate change will be felt around the world, according to Canadian pulmonologist Dr. Samir Gupta.

But this is only the beginning.

Canada has too many health facilities built on floodplains or susceptible to melting permafrost, he said.

Programs such as wellness checks to ensure vulnerable people are well should be the norm during floods or heat waves. Cooling stations should be part of every city’s plan.

Culbert cites Ontario municipalities that have included public health experts in their planning process by advocating for measures such as green awnings and walkable neighborhoods with nearby services.

“Public health officials were at the table, empowered to make decisions,” he said. “Too often health has not been a consideration.”

The broader fight against climate change also has public health benefits, Culbert said. In Ontario, respiratory health has improved after the province phased out its coal-fired power plants.

Lafontaine said even medical conditions that have nothing to do with climate change are affected, as resources are diverted to deal with new threats.

“As that sharpness starts to take root, then you have to add more capacity, which takes capacity in other places.”

Culbert said the Lancet study shows Canada needs to start thinking much more broadly about how climate change affects health and how the system can respond to it.

“The hospital is not your first line of defense,” he said. “It’s your last.”

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