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Too Hot for Health: How Health Systems Will Cope With Climate Change

01/12/2015 12:47 GMT | Updated 27/11/2016 10:12 GMT

The United Nation's climate change summit, COP21 in Paris will be one of the most important opportunities to date to save global health. With one in eight deaths from diseases related to air pollution associated with burning fossil fuels each year, as reported by the World Health Organization, collective steps need to be taken to curb our carbon emissions. Without it, the future of how healthcare will be able to cope is less certain.

If the world continues to heat beyond the two degrees 'cut off point' climate change will have a devastating and unpredictable impact on health systems. In the future, we will see greater impact on health through extreme weather patterns, effecting food supply, water contamination and droughts, mass migration and potential conflicts. Therefore, an international framework to reduce global carbon emissions worldwide is needed from COP21 to keep the world from heating beyond two degrees Celsius.

I believe that health systems and companies will also have a vital role to play to mitigate and adapt to these challenges. They must be advocates for governments to come to meaningful agreements to boost the transition to a low-carbon economy. As guardians of health, we have the dual responsibility of reducing our impact on the environment and to innovate at a scale to cope with this unique challenge.

Here are five ways in which health systems may transform in the future to meet the climate change challenge within two degrees:

1. Prevention will be integrated in every part of society

In the future, protection against disease will be integrated into every part of society, from the workplace and schools, to the way in which cities will evolve. These networks will help us become more physically active, improve our nutrition and influence our mental wellbeing. Prevention methods will help to reduce the number of people requiring resource intensive treatment in hospitals during later life.

2. mHealth will lead the way to treat and prepare us

Technology to monitor our own health with remote devices will become more mainstream, reducing the need to travel to clinics and freeing up resources. A shirt that detects irregular blood sugar levels, contact lenses that monitor retinal changes, and a portable home dialysis system could be common place in 10 years. This is a huge opportunity for developing nations, enabling them to leap frog to more sustainable health infrastructures, and providing better access to health whilst growing sustainably.

3. Healthcare services will become more localised

In the future will see resources move away from hospitals to primary-level care. Advancements in a connected home will be less resource-intensive than being treated on a ward. It will free up resources for those who are critically ill, meaning fewer new large hospitals on our landscape. Changing weather patterns and mass migration will impact those in developing nations more, so localised treatment will also pave the way for better access, through dual-purposed designed buildings to maximise energy efficiency.

4. Energy efficient buildings will be the norm

While digital delivery will help health systems reduce impact, there will still be a need for some specialised health service buildings which will use and produce renewable energy, and be waste efficient. There are some examples of this happening already. In Spain, Bupa installed a tri-generator unit in Manises hospital that heats the building, provides hot water and generates electricity for the 300 bed hospital.

5. Healthcare systems will be prepared for re-emerging and new diseases

Changing weather patterns will see diseases evolving and re-emerging. We may see outbreaks of dengue fever and malaria, typically found in warmer climates, in countries further north. Those most vulnerable will be children, the elderly and those from poorer demographics in developing economies. This will have an impact on how healthcare will be provided and who is primarily looked after. Investment into new and re-emerging disease will rise and its approach to emergency situations.

At Bupa, we have begun to reduce our carbon emissions by building 900 renewable energy and low carbon projects on our own properties worldwide, to reduce our absolute carbon footprint by 20%. As a global health and care company, we know that the benefits of combating climate change will improve the health of millions of people.

The challenge is not to be underestimated, but I'm positive about the potential outcome from COP21 in Paris next week. There is little evidence on the impact on health systems if the earth's temperature rises beyond two degrees, but we face a huge opportunity for the healthcare sector to take an active role and become advocates for both health and the environment.