Dr Barb Vernon is the CEO of Women’s and Children’s Healthcare Australasia (WCHA), a national not-for-profit organisation working to accelerate the sharing of innovation and expertise among hospitals to improve healthcare for women, children and their families.
After a decade as an environmental policy specialist in the 1990s, Barb moved into a leadership role in healthcare, just as climate change was increasingly being recognised as a health problem.
The extreme bushfires in the summer of 2019/20 provoked me, as the CEO of a health charity, to actively look for opportunities to move the climate conversation forwards in our sector. It became clear to me that climate change is already happening. It’s already having a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of Australian children and their families”
As part of her efforts to support women’s & children’s hospitals to take effective action on reducing carbon pollution, Barb discovered the Global Green and Healthy Hospitals Network, and the Australian not-for-profit, the Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA), of which she is now a Board Director. She soon learnt that healthcare services are estimated to be contributing around 7% of Australia’s total greenhouse emissions per year, more than the whole of South Australia. WCHA is now helping their members to connect and share strategies for reducing waste production, energy consumption, and the environmental impacts of their services.
More and more of our hospitals are engaging in the Global Green & Health Hospitals network. GGHH provides a really well designed & supportive framework for hospitals to sign up to that helps them to make measurable progress in reducing the carbon footprint of their work.”
CAHA has recently developed a Framework for a national strategy on climate, health and well-being for Australia. The Framework has been endorsed by WCHA along with more than 70 health and medical organisations, including groups representing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander healthcare professionals and services. It recognises that “targeted action on climate change that integrates health, social, environmental and cultural considerations can lead to win-win-win outcomes. We can tackle inequality, reduce emissions and improve health through no-regrets policies and initiatives”.
Barb welcomes the Albanese Government’s pledge to reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by 43 per cent by 2030 but believes even bolder targets are both possible and necessary. She encourages the Government to work in partnership with the states and territories and the healthcare sector to develop and implement a national climate and health strategy, drawing upon the CAHA Framework.
If we are serious about the future health and wellbeing of our children, we must be serious about preventing further climate change. The CAHA Framework presents a vision for working together across eight domains to achieve this in a just and inclusive way.”
WCHA’s benchmarking data shows that the COVID-19 pandemic has been associated with a significant increase in the numbers of children and young people presenting to hospital Emergency Departments for reasons related to mental ill health. For example, the numbers of adolescents requiring admission for an eating disorder has doubled and children’s services are struggling to cope. ED presentations for suicide ideation have also jumped markedly. These trends are not only happening in Australia and New Zealand but in many developed nations in North America and Europe as well.
As the immediate social and economic impacts of the pandemic wane, the rising trends in mental ill health in children and adolescents are not abating. There is a growing body of research suggesting that pessimism about the influence of climate change on their future is playing a significant part.
Before the pandemic we were witnessing rallies across the nation led by school children and attended by tens of thousands of people calling for collective action on climate change. While the pandemic has distracted us all over the past 2 years, children remain anxious about their future in a world impacted by climate change. We have to listen to their voices. We have to act, if not for our own sake, then for our children’s sake."
Barb acknowledges that the pandemic has taken a heavy toll on healthcare leaders and providers who are experiencing exhaustion in large numbers. Despite this, she has observed that there is a strong appetite among the health professionals in WCHA’s networks to start working on improving the sustainability of their healthcare services.
We are determined to support that interest as best we can. Together we are working to make a difference.”