Health care in Canada affected by climate change

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

“It really happened in my OR,” 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 the warning in research published Tuesday from one of the world’s leading medical journals.

The Lancet concludes that, worldwide, extreme heat has underscored the impact of heart and lung diseases, worsening pregnancy outcomes, disrupting sleep, increasing injury deaths and limiting fertility human performance and exercise capacity.

Infectious diseases such as malaria have a longer contagious season.

Heat-related deaths increased by 68% between 2017-2021 compared with 2000-2004. Nearly two-thirds of countries globally had very high or extremely high fire risk days from 2001-2004 to 2018-2021.

Canada is not immune. Studies show that the 2021 heat dome in British Columbia that causes 619 deaths is almost impossible without the effects of climate change.

Lafontaine said the healthcare system must change to adapt to the challenges to come.

The system needs to be able to backup. Medical professionals need more transferable accreditation, so nurses from Saskatchewan can help in BC Doctors need to be more aware of rising climate-related illnesses like Lyme.

“It changes the combination of many diseases,” says Lafontaine.

But above all, he said, the health sector’s response to climate change requires coordination across countries.

“One of the big gaps in responding to the climate crisis when it comes to health care is the establishment of a national secretariat,” he said.

Someone should collect information about what happens to the system during extreme events – like when a wildfire destroys surgeries, he said. Otherwise, every emergency is another time.

Ian Culbert of the Public Health Association of Canada agrees. Common licensing standards are a big one, he said.

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

But that’s just the beginning.

Canada has too many medical facilities built on floodplains or prone to permafrost melt, he said.

Programs such as health screenings to ensure vulnerable people are stabilized should be standard during floods or heatwaves. Cooling stations should be in every city’s plan.

Culbert points to municipalities in Ontario that have included public health professionals in their planning process in favor of measures such as tree canopy and walkable neighborhoods with close-by services. there.

“Public health workers were at the table, empowered to make decisions,” he said. “Too often, health is not considered.”

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

Even health conditions unrelated to climate change are affected by it, Lafontaine said, as resources are redirected to meet new threats.

“When that acumen starts to develop on its own, you have to add capacity to take it from elsewhere.”

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

“Hospitals are not your first line of defense,” he said. “This is your last.”

This report by the Canadian Press was first published on October 25, 2022.


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