In my View : Declaration on Planetary Health

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Prof Sir Andy Haines writes about the "Declaration calling for the family doctors of the world to act on planetary health" - a result of the WONCA Working Party on the Environment and the Planetary Health Alliance Clinicians for Planetary Health Working Group

We all depend for our health and wellbeing on natural systems that regulate the climate and provide essential freshwater, air and food. More and more people, in cities and in rural areas, are now faced with poor air quality, increased levels of waste and a visible reduction in the health of our oceans, whilst the global climate is changing more rapidly than at any point in human history. The resulting disruption of the natural environment is a growing cause for concern and could undermine the health of our own and future generations, who face health hazards directly and indirectly related to the accelerating environmental changes.

Family doctors are on the frontline of treating environmentally-related illnesses including the effects of exposure to air and other forms of pollution as well as increased susceptibility to injury and disease from climate and other environmental changes. They increasingly recognize the changing patterns of illnesses and diseases being presented by patients as being environment-related. But what can be done to address them? How, as family doctors and GPs, do we prepare for the new health threats and make positive changes to our own and our patients’ lives to reduce the risks to health from these challenges which are increasingly recognised as part of our practice?

The Planetary Health Alliance and the WONCA Working Party on the Environment have joined forces to develop and agree a Declaration calling for the family doctors of the world to act on planetary health. The Declaration, while highlighting the risks to health of environmental change also focuses on the opportunities for intervention to reduce the impacts and to tackle the driving forces responsible for these changes.
Declaration calling for the family doctors of the world to act on planetary health
WONCA represents more than 500,000 family doctors and GPs around the globe. Using patient consultations and community engagement to advocate for actions which can both improve health and the environment will have an impact, not least by raising awareness and encouraging communities to become involved in preparing for risks associated with environmental change. Being trusted advocates in our communities, family doctors are in a key position to help to make initially small changes which can build a positive impact over a short time.

WONCA members have access to a range of environmental health promotion and advocacy tools through a range of sources, including from the Planetary Health Alliance and from the WONCA Working Party on the Environment. There are a range of actions which family doctors, along with other health professionals, can undertake to reduce the risks inherent in the deteriorating global environment. The first and most important action is to become better informed about these risks, and then to communicate them to patients and the wider community while providing information about ways to reduce them. Promoting healthy, low environmental impact food choices, and the use of ‘active’ transport such as cycling and walking, encouraging the uptake of clean renewable energy sources, and greater use of green spaces, recycling where possible and engaging with community efforts to build resilience are small steps which build momentum.

Family doctors, with their unique position in a community, have the opportunity to advocate for better environmental practices among their own patient groups. Leading by example acts as a model for patients and communities. Contributing to the growing body of evidence to help shape future policies, through local groups or global groups, such as the WONCA Working Party on the Environment, will ensure that risks are reduced as far as possible. Activities could include assisting with the development of locally relevant materials on planetary health with which to engage directly with patients; getting involved in developing material for under and post-graduate training, including in the WONCA Air Health Train the Trainers Initiative; establishing a practice-based awareness and training programme for the whole primary care team. There are plenty of ways to become involved, as an individual, as a member of community or local professional group, or as part of a wider global movement such as the Clinicians for Planetary Health Working Group.

The risks are not theoretical. They are not scare-mongering. Family doctors owe it to themselves and their patients and future generations to reduce the growing risks we face from environmental threats.

Sir Andrew Haines, FRCGP, FRCP, FFPH is a British epidemiologist and academic. He was Director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine from 2001 to 2010. His research interests currently focus on the study of environmental influences on health, including the potential effects of climate change and the health co-benefits of the low carbon economy. He chaired an international task force on climate change mitigation and public health which published a series of articles in the Lancet in 2009. Recent research included the study of the health co-benefits and economic impacts of low carbon policies in the transport, food and agriculture and housing sectors. I was a co-investigator on a MRC/NERC project to link environmental and health data in the UK. He is involved in Wellcome Trust funded research on severe heat stress exposure under climate change, sustainable diets /food systems and healthy sustainable cities.