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11 Oct 2019


On Friday, September 20, medical students from around the country joined more than 300,000 people at the Global Climate Strikes to draw attention to the potential adverse health consequences of climate change. Representatives from all of Australia’s 22 medical schools unanimously voted to include “working collaboratively to minimise the health impacts of climate change” as a national advocacy priority for the Australian Medical Students’ Association (AMSA).

For some, it may seem that climate change and human health are two separate issues; it is easy to assume that the health of the environment is not an area in which medical students or doctors should be invested. However, the evidence is clear that climate change negatively affects health.

Beyond the science and data of climate change, we see its repercussions in our day-to-day lives; emergency room visits spiking during increasingly frequent and severe weather events, droughts affecting crop yields threatening our nation’s food supplies, and heat-waves becoming hotter and longer. Australia is particularly susceptible to climate change which is why Australia’s future doctors pushing for more to be done. Australia’s ageing population is more vulnerable to extreme temperatures, our agricultural industries are threatened by water scarcity, and we have a high population density in flood zones, and located along the coasts. The climate change fall-out disproportionately affects rural and remote locations where resources, personnel and nearby support are already stretched too thinly, and may not be sufficiently adaptable to manage the climate crisis.

It would be a disservice to Australians not to use our voice to call attention to a health issue that affects our future patients.

AMSA is in good company advocating on this issue; in September, the Australian Medical Association declared climate change as a health emergency. In April 2019, we joined an open letter to all political parties, including Doctors for the Environment Australia, the Climate and Health Alliance, and the Royal Australian College of Physicians, emphasising the “significant and profound impacts climate change has on the health of people and our health system”.

Being a doctor is more than diagnosing and treating illness: it is also about prevention. Medical students are taught from day one that prevention is better than cure. Climate change is a public health issue just like antibiotic resistance, smoking, or vaccination programs and the same preventive stance should be taken to limit further detrimental health effects of climate change.

AMSA has been advocating on climate change and its impact on health since 2014, as part of the AMSA Code Green advocacy project. Our advocacy extends far beyond calls to action and skipping classes to go to a march: we have partnered with The Lancet and made policy submissions to both Federal and State governments on climate change-related health effects.

In his statement to The Australian, Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan said: “What I’d like to see is medical students striking on a weekend about getting more doctors into remote Indigenous communities and rural and regional Australia”.

Climate change and rural health are interlinked issues: the changing health landscape, including in response to water scarcity and major weather events, hit rural communities first, and worst.

Serendipitously, medical students did actually “strike on a weekend” for rural and regional Australia,  at AMSA’s annual Rural Health Summit (RHS) in Cairns on September 21-22. RHS actively celebrated the unique nature of medicine in rural Australia and supports medical students to pursue a career in this area. Medical students advocate on a plethora of issues in health and medical education. While I thank Minister Tehan for keeping rural health at the forefront of our minds, advocacy on one issue does not mean we can ignore another.

We are not only the future generation of doctors, but we are part of the future generation of Australians too. We call upon the Australian Government to seriously consider what tangible action they are going to take to mitigate climate-related health effects, and what they are willing to be held accountable for.

Published: 11 Oct 2019