Isobel Braithwaite: Sustainable healthcare education—what is it, and why does it matter?





Welcome to a series of blogs on sustainable healthcare that look at health, sustainability, and the interplay between the two. The blogs share ideas from experts across the healthcare field, some of whom are speaking at a major European conference looking at Pathways to Sustainable Healthcare in September 2013. More about the conference can be seen at

The concepts of sustainable healthcare and how environmental change affects health are not generally taught in medical schools, but I was lucky enough to take part in a student-led national programme on the topic in my first year. I had long been interested in global health and the environment, so was keen to find out more and get involved in this area.

The focus of my work has been with the Sustainable Healthcare Education (SHE) Network, for example contributing to a set of downloadable teaching resources and subsequently helping to collate a set of case studies on existing student-selected components.  I’ve also been involved in the most recent project on curriculum learning outcomes, organised in response to a request from the GMC, which has been a multi-stage consultation process. The three overarching learning outcomes proposed on the basis of the consultation are to be published online soon and cover: the relationship between the environment and health; the environmental sustainability of health systems; and the ethical and policy related issues that arise from understanding these two topics, such as how the duty of a doctor to protect health applies to future generations.

As I‘ve read more about our impacts on the environment, climate science, and the extent to which human health depends on ecosystems and climate stability, I’ve been surprised and concerned by how little of this information seems to reach the general public, including medical students.  To help change that, I’ve been running workshops and campaigns with a student group called Healthy Planet UK, in partnership with a larger network called Medsin.

Medical educators, students, and clinicians wishing to set up more teaching in their medical school often encounter objections that there’s not enough space in the curriculum or that these topics aren’t relevant.  Yet the evidence shows that climate change is an increasingly important threat to global public health, and I think the scope for health professionals to help shift political narratives around environmental issues is often underestimated.  If my cohort of future doctors needs to know about tobacco or antibiotic resistance, then surely we also need to understand how changes to weather patterns and ecosystems are affecting, and are predicted to affect, health.  Equally importantly, we need to be aware of the growing evidence base around the opportunities, termed “co-benefits,” to deal with burgeoning public health problems such as obesity and poor mental health in a way that’s synergistic with the goals of sustainable development.

Given some of the details I had to learn in pre-clinical medicine, the argument that there’s not enough space in the curriculum suggests it’s an issue of priorities.  Do we really think enabling tomorrow’s doctors to tackle what may well be a bigger health threat than tobacco—especially considering the complete inadequacy of the political response so far—matters less than learning, for example, all the steps of the Krebs cycle?  My learning in this area has influenced the way I think about the rest of my education, and I think I’ll be a better doctor for it; better able to understand the macro-scale influences on patients’ lives, and to contribute to discussions about how health services could be better for both patients and the environment.

To create lasting change—whether in sustainable healthcare, climate policy, or other public health issues—tomorrow’s doctors require an understanding of the issues, to have had the freedom to discuss them and try out their ideas, and the skills for effective collaboration, including inter-sectorally.  Through the SHE network, we are seeking to create this space for students to learn, reflect, and debate about the issues, and to develop the skills to help lead the transition to sustainable healthcare.

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Isobel Braithwaite is a medical student. She has just spent a year at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine doing a Master’s degree in public health with a focus on environment and health. She will be speaking on a panel at the fourth CleanMed Europe conference which takes place at the Oxford Examination Schools from 17 – 19 September.