Florence Wedmore: This is climate breakdown, and it is having a real effect on our patients

As the IPCC issue a stark report warning of the immediate dangers of the climate emergency, Florence Wedmore highlights the impact of hospital flooding on patient care

A couple of weeks ago, while I had a lazy Sunday at home, thunderstorms raged over London. The rain was dramatic, pelting down. But, I looked on from the safety of my home, thinking only vaguely that I might have a bit of a soggy cycle later in the evening. The next morning, as I prepped my list ready for the ward round, one of the consultants popped her head round the door to tell me and my colleague to be prepared for a busy day. One of the District General Hospitals in our trust had been flooded overnight by the heavy rain, and was going to have to transfer a large number of patients to other hospitals. Another hospital in the trust had floods in its A&E department.

I have an interest in climate change and health. I’ve given talks on it. I’ve developed teaching on it. I’ve lobbied at our trust for it to be taken more seriously. When I give talks on this subject, I always make a point of saying that we are already seeing the effects of the climate emergency on health. One of the resources I use when giving my talks, to make it relevant to healthcare professionals in London, is a report commissioned by the Greater London Authority in 2019. The report lists the specific risks of the climate emergency to the health of Londoners. One of these is that 42% of London hospitals are at risk of a 1 in 30-year flood event. A key effect of the climate emergency is that it increases the likelihood of extreme weather events such as flooding.

A couple of weeks ago, the reality of this really hit me. This is it. This is climate breakdown. And it is having a real effect on our patients, our community, our healthcare systems. Today. Not in some imagined, worst-case-scenario future. But today. Unwell patients were transferred across London because of a hospital flooding. Operations were cancelled. Care was delayed. Clinicians were stressed. I found it hard to concentrate on the ward round that morning. How can we not all be talking about this? What are we doing if we are not doing everything to resolve this, to prevent this happening again?

So, what now?

When faced with emergencies, we take action. This is an emergency. Right here and now. We cannot ignore it. But what action can we, and should we, take? Even if it does not feel like it, we can have influence in many different arenas—be it in our personal choices, professionally, or how we use our political voice. All actions will have an impact.

When I speak about taking personal action there are some who are cynical. It is true that we cannot let those in power shift all responsibility onto individuals. However, that does not mean that our own individual actions do not have an impact. Doctors in particular have a relatively high income and often that translates into a high carbon lifestyle. Any changes to our individual actions have a ripple effect, influencing those around us, as well as those who hope to take our hard-earned money. If you pledge to give up flying, or to ditch your car, you’d be surprised at how many others around you will follow you. 

As professionals, we have a responsibility to ensure that healthcare does not cause harm to the communities we hope to help. The NHS makes up 4% of the UK’s carbon footprint. The NHS has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2040. This is only achievable through a massive group effort, which has to include re-thinking our clinical practice and how we deliver services, in order to reduce impact on the climate. The Centre for Sustainable Healthcare has developed a huge range of resources to help us work out how to do that: from green dialysis, improved prescribing, to sustainable quality improvement. 

And finally, we have a political voice. Healthcare professionals consistently top opinion polls as those most trusted to tell the truth. We can use that voice to shout about this. To say that this is a health emergency. The climate emergency is the greatest threat to human health in the 21st century. We must say it again until we see those in power really begin to truly take this seriously. 

That Monday morning my fears for the future hit me hard. Everyone is on their own journey in coming to terms with the implications of the human effect on the planet, and what that means for the future. In that moment, I felt jolted to take one more step and pledged to reduce my own carbon footprint by switching to a fully plant-based diet. However, what I have also pledged to do is to continue to talk about this; with my colleagues, my seniors, my trust. To talk, to organise, to take action. And it is through collaboration with others that I begin to find hope again. 

Florence Wedmore is medical education fellow working at a large London teaching trust and chair of her trust’s staff sustainability group. @FWedmore 

Competing interests: none declared.