By Dr Karan Thakur, Group Sustainability Lead and Vice President Public Affairs, Apollo Hospitals in Chennai, India. Karan is a judge on the Burjeel Holdings Oxford Saïd Climate Change Challenge and has provided this blog for Oxford Answers.
Climate change represents a multifaceted challenge, extending far beyond environmental concerns. The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that climate change could lead to an estimated 250,000 additional deaths annually and result in global economic losses of $2-4 billion per year between 2030 and 2050. In this scenario, the global progress achieved towards universal healthcare could be jeopardised, and the most vulnerable communities in low and middle-income countries (LMICs) are expected to bear the brunt of these challenges.
As it stands, climate change not only has direct implications for human health, such as injuries and illnesses from extreme weather events, but it also poses a substantial threat to the capacity of health systems to safeguard public health on a global scale. The escalating frequency and severity of extreme weather events, alterations in disease patterns, and environmental degradation present complex challenges for healthcare systems worldwide. In response to this pressing need to adapt and mitigate the consequences of climate change, it is imperative to strengthen health systems, making them more resilient in the face of these evolving threats.
A looming crisis
The healthcare sector finds itself at the forefront of the adverse impacts of climate change. As the world grapples with escalating climate challenges, health systems face a myriad of challenges. These include the surge in heatwaves, the intensification of storms, and shifting disease vectors that can place immense strain on healthcare infrastructure. The health implications of climate change manifest in diverse ways, notably in the rise of heat-related illnesses, increased respiratory diseases due to deteriorating air quality, and the expansion of infectious diseases into new territories. [i]
Certain demographics, such as the elderly, children, and individuals with pre-existing health conditions, are disproportionately affected by climate-related health risks. Notably, low- and middle-income countries confront particularly formidable challenges, given their limited resources and fragile healthcare infrastructure.
Constructing climate-resilient health systems
The urgency of constructing climate-resilient health systems cannot be overstated. Here is an outline of key strategies to address this critical need:
- Preparedness and response plans: Healthcare systems must forge robust climate adaptation plans. These plans should incorporate early warning systems for extreme weather events, the fortification of health facilities to withstand climatic pressures, and the enhancement of disease surveillance and response mechanisms.
- Vulnerability and adaptation assessments: Identifying and preparing for changing health risks is essential. Vulnerability and Adaptation Assessments (V&As) help identify the extent and magnitude of likely health risks due to climate change and suggest priority policies and programmes to mitigate these risks. These assessments serve as a baseline analysis against which changes in disease risks and protective measures can be monitored. As an example, vulnerability and adaptation assessments in India have shown that diarrhoeal diseases have increased from 9% to 9.2% between 2016 and 2020, and that vector-borne diseases are on the rise. These findings underscore the need for targeted interventions. [ii]
- Health infrastructure: Critical healthcare infrastructure must be designed and constructed to withstand the rigours of extreme weather events. Hospitals and clinics should maintain their functionality during power outages and flooding. The presence of backup energy sources and the integration of climate-resilient architectural designs are pivotal.
- Safeguarding healthcare workers: Healthcare professionals play a central role in responding to climate-related disasters. Consequently, their protection is of paramount importance. This entails the provision of specialised training for disaster response, ensuring access to protective equipment, and cultivating a supportive working environment.
- Risk communication: Effective public health campaigns must be deployed to articulate the health risks associated with climate change. Raising public awareness regarding the perils of heat stress, air pollution, and the importance of vaccinations can significantly reduce climate-related health issues.
- Reinforcing primary healthcare: The strengthening of primary healthcare services offers communities access to preventive and routine care. A well-functioning primary care system is instrumental in alleviating the burden on hospitals during climate-related health crises.
- Collaboration: Collaboration across international healthcare organisations, governments, and the private sector is indispensable for tackling the multifaceted challenges posed by climate change. The sharing of knowledge and resources between these stakeholders can facilitate more effective responses.
The role of technology
Leveraging technology represents a pivotal aspect of crafting climate-resilient health systems. Innovations such as telemedicine and health informatics hold transformative potential. Telehealth can offer remote healthcare access during extreme events, while health informatics can predict and monitor the outbreak of diseases.
Charting the course ahead
The inexorable burden of climate change on healthcare systems underscores the urgent necessity of building climate-resilient health systems. This is not a matter of luxury but a compelling requirement. Governments, healthcare providers, and communities must forge a united front to adapt to and mitigate the health risks posed by climate change. Through such collaboration, the resilience of health systems can be fortified, ensuring that healthcare services remain dependable and accessible when they are needed most.
Climate-resilient health systems serve as the cornerstone for safeguarding global public health. They represent a profound commitment to a sustainable, health-conscious, and climate-resilient future. As the world moves towards a future with net zero greenhouse gas emissions, and with the upcoming UN COP28 conference in the UAE, there's a growing recognition that addressing the impacts of climate change on health is imperative. By proactively addressing the consequences of climate change on healthcare, we not only protect our communities but also secure the endurance of health services in the face of an uncertain climate future. Constructing health systems that are adaptable, efficient, and resilient in the face of climate change is not only a necessity but also a substantial contribution to global health endeavours.
Background and references
Apollo Hospitals Group is the largest private healthcare group in India and one of the largest healthcare groups in Asia. One of Karan's colleagues, Professor Anupam Sibal, the Group Director of Medical Services for Apollo Hospitals, shared his insights on the challenges healthcare is facing and the opportunities that can come from medical technology in our Transformational Healthcare Leadership podcast Frugal innovation
[ii] Identifying spatial clustering of diarrhoea among children under 5 years across 707 districts in India: a cross sectional study by Koustav Ghosh, Atreyee Sinha Chakraborty and Shoummo SenGupta
Many thanks to Karan and the rest of the panel of international judges who are giving their time and expertise to review entries for our Climate Change Challenge. It is a global competition for high school students (aged 15 to 18) and teachers which Burjeel Holdings and Saïd Business School launched in the summer of 2023 ahead of COP28.
The challenge invited young people and educators across the world to contribute their ideas and take action towards creating solutions to the greatest and most complex threat to humanity: the climate crisis.