Every winter we witness the same stories of the National Health Service stretched beyond capacity and severe weather causing unprecedented damage and disruption. These two crises are not disconnected and if we are to help the NHS survive then we must recognise the link between our healthcare system and our environment.
We have seen the NHS struggle during the winter period in recent years – this December, more than 300,000 patients waited longer than four hours for treatment. Our health service is straining due to increasing pressures fuelled by underinvestment, an aging population, growing levels of obesity and adverse weather because of a changing climate.
Severe weather events are becoming standard. Since 2010, the UK has experienced its hottest June in 40 years and coldest December since Met Office records began in 1910. With global temperatures potentially rising by three degrees in the next 30 years, these events will become far more common: the UK Climate Change Risk Assessment report projects that the number of heat-related deaths in the UK could more than double by the 2050s.
One of the most significant risks posed by climate change in the UK is the increasing unpredictability of the weather. While it may lead to some milder winters, it will also increase the chance of extreme weather events such as the 2013/2014 floods which caused more than £1.3bn in damage. Strengthening our resilience to severe weather not only poses benefits for the environment and economy, but for health as well.
Weather and health are connected – there are an additional 23,000 deaths in England over the winter months compared with other times of the year. Cold weather not only leads to increased injuries from ice and snow, but increases the risk of heart attacks, strokes, influenza, COPD and other illnesses. Vulnerable groups such as very young and older people are particularly at risk from sudden and severe cold weather.
The UK has one of the highest excess winter death rates in Europe – only surpassed by Ireland, Spain and Portugal. As severe weather becomes increasingly common so will increased demand for the NHS. We must start looking at new ways of helping our health service manage these increased pressures if it is to survive the consequences of climate change.
Some NHS services are already adapting to the new normal: in Berkshire, Intelligent Health are working with Royal Berkshire Hospital to develop their Health Forecasting service. This tool analyses meteorological information as well as historic and current health trends to predict surges in demand as a result of poor weather.
However, we must not only create solutions to the consequences of climate change, but do more to prevent it and protect our environment. The UK has already reduced its carbon emission levels to 42% below 1990 with targets set to reduce our emissions by 80% by 2050. Additionally, the government’s newly launched environmental strategy includes plans to tackle emissions from combustion plants and generators which could reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by 22% in the next 15 years.
But, most importantly, we must start seeing environment and health as intrinsically linked. Daily contact with nature is linked to reduced levels of chronic stress, improved concentration and reductions in obesity. By protecting and preserving our environment, we can leave a legacy of improved health and fitness for the next generation.