Doctor, doctor I'm a bit green

Last updated 05:00 06/07/2014

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Some GPs want to spend less time worrying about what's wrong with you - and more time worrying about the environment. Shabnam Dastgheib reports. 

Walking to work, eating less meat, and insulating your house could soon be part of the doctor's orders, as GPs are urged to think green in their everyday practice.

The New Zealand Health and Climate Council is calling for urgent action from doctors on what it says is the biggest health issue facing New Zealanders at the moment - climate change.

A doctor's code of ethics stipulates they must act on health threats like climate change, according to Dr Russell Tregonning.

Writing in the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists' newsletter, Tregonning said medical specialists had a duty to the general public not just their own patients.

As an example, if a doctor didn't warn a smoker of the life-threatening consequences of the habit, that doctor could be negligent, Tregonning said. "The strength of the evidence that climate change is linked to human activity is being compared with that linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer . . . Are we similarly negligent if we fail to inform the public that the changing climate threatens health?"

He said climate change meant extreme weather events, sensitive diseases, insecurity of food and water, economic collapse and human conflict.

Doctors needed to advocate for more activity, less red meat, warmer houses and less air pollution. "Doctors are listened to, we are professional at it. It's not additional, doctors are expected to do that. We have got very high carbon footprints in hospitals we use a tremendous amount of stuff, there's a lot of packaging."

The council's guide for doctors includes a section on promoting green and healthy lifestyles to staff and patients. Doctors are to encourage walking, cycling and public transport use, as well as car-pooling. They should offer discounts to patients arriving by those methods and install bike racks at their clinics. The toolkit also encourages doctors to promote healthy and organic eating habits and to educate patients about the dangers of unflued gas heaters.

Council convener Dr Rhys Jones said not all doctors should advise their patients on how to live a greener life unless they felt comfortable doing that. "We as doctors have a reasonable amount of public trust and a level of credibility in the public eye, we have a responsibility to speak out."

He said if a doctor was going to recommend physical activity then it could be as simple as advising the patient to leave the car at home. If patients had respiratory illness, the doctor could lobby the council or government to retrofit that patient's home with insulation. "There are definitely areas we can get win win for climate and for health."

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New Zealand Medical Association chair Mark Peterson said it did not have a formal position on the proposal but recognised climate change would create conditions that would affect public health. "The association encourages doctors to help teach their patients and the general public on greener practices and to serve as role models," he said.

Jones said not all doctors would be on board with the proposal.

"Within the medical profession there's likely to be a range of views like there is with anything. I see it as asking ‘what are the range of things affecting a patient's health?' I see it as part of a global movement."

The Ministry of Health said a greener health system was not a focus but there was ongoing work to reduce the health sector's carbon footprint. It said each health board would have its own approach to environmental sustainability.

The ministry said doctors were to provide health care for their patients and that might or might not result in a greener health system.

- Sunday Star Times

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