Skip to main content

Physiotherapy and Climate Change: 3 Ways to Make a Difference as a Profession.

Climate change, or more ominously the climate crisis, is a topic that has exploded in the last few years thanks to landmark reports from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the highly publicized work of youth activist Greta Thunberg. As an evidence-based community, the facts in this report and the forecast it has for humanity are as terrifying as they are overwhelming. 

Where do we even begin to take impactful action? As individuals, there are countless steps we can take to reduce our carbon footprint and there are resources out there that provide suggestions on sustainable living. As a profession, however, our role is less obvious despite climate change being coined the “biggest global health threat of the 21st century” (according to the World Health Organization). Climate change consequences on human health are growing and manifesting in multiple ways: air pollution is causing increased respiratory illness; record-breaking temperatures are creating devastating heat-stress illnesses & increased fire risks (with that come to the burns related complications); global food security is threatened and increases the risks of malnutrition; widespread droughts and water pollution is steadily reducing access to safe drinking water. Unfortunately, the list goes on. 

As a profession, we have a duty of care and a chance to reframe climate change to being as much a healthcare problem as it is an environmental problem: the two are intimately connected. By linking the environment closer to health, our profession has the opportunity to unite our voice for climate action for the health of people and the planet. 

Here are three practical ways to address climate change professionally:

1) GET EDUCATED & INVOLVED

 

There are many learning resources devoted to climate change & health impacts, and from a physiotherapy perspective, we now have the Environmental Physiotherapy Association (EPA). The EPA was recently founded in New Zealand by Dr. David Nicholls and Dr. Filip Maric. Both are physiotherapists with an interest in environmental physiotherapy. Together they published a thought-provoking piece:” A call for new environmental physiotherapy - An editorial ” (Maric & Nicholls, 2019). 

The good news (and we need some!) Maric and Nicholls point out is that as a profession, physiotherapy’s approach to practice is already fairly low carbon and traditionally has roots in being “environmentally-conscious”: our primary diagnostic process refrains from energy-intensive imaging technologies and with the increased use of Electronic Medical Records (EMR), our documentation requirements are moving away from paper-based resources. With the growing adoption of virtual service delivery (telemedicine) especially in remote areas, there is an opportunity to not only further offset the carbon footprint from travel within the healthcare sector, but to be more accommodating and inclusive of our patients. In prescribing exercise or active lifestyles, we are in line with environmentally friendly active transport solutions (Maric & Nicholls, 2019). These examples are encouraging and help to develop a mindset going forward in reviewing our practice from an environmental standpoint. 

The EPA’s mandate is to “advance environmentally responsible physiotherapy” by bringing together physiotherapists with an interest in the environment to explore how our work is contributing positively or negatively to climate change. The EPA is free to join and welcomes new members globally. They provide a growing body of resources in the form of blog posts, research articles, and, in the spirit of continuing education, soon there will be course listings that connect healthcare and the environment. 

2) DONATE OR VOLUNTEER

 

If you are looking for a way to further add a physiotherapy voice to initiatives that promote a healthy environment and society, consider donating to the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE). CAPE is a non-profit organization based in Canada (approximately 5000 members) that is dedicated to environmental issues as they relate to human health. CAPE focuses on educating health professionals, the public and policymakers and they achieve their mission by participating in scientific conferences, publishing articles, communicating with the media, providing educational materials and presentations to parliamentary committees. A list of their impact/victories can be found here. Impressively, CAPE’s most recent victory was securing federal commitment for a nation-wide coal phase out by 2030. As an example of its relevance to healthcare, CAPE estimates this initiative could prevent 1,008 premature deaths and 871 hospital or emergency room visits between 2015-2035 (CAPE, 2016). 

To continue their work as the voice of Canadian healthcare and environmental affairs, CAPE needs to continually expand its membership and resource base. Part of this is from donations. To that effect, your involvement can be tiered from minimal to more engaged on the following scale:

  • Sign a CAPE petition for an environmental cause you support (they provide a list)
  • Make a donation to CAPE to support their continued work in demanding climate action for a healthier Canada
  • Join as a supporting member and stay in the loop on how your donation is being used to improve the health of Canadians 
  • If you wish to become more actively engaged you can join a regional volunteer committee. Regional chapters focus on regional health and environmental priorities and meet (virtually) approximately once a month. There are currently chapters in Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, and Alberta. 

With the exception of signing a petition, all levels of involvement ask for an annual membership fee (donation) of your choice. Although CAPE speaks “as Physicians”, you do not need to be a Physician to join.

3) SHOW UP ACTIVELY 

 

Give physical energy and support to youth and the climate action movement by joining a peaceful Global Climate Strike (for justice). The next strike is happening on (Black) Friday, November 29th, 2019. Attendance and venue details for the strike in your area can be found here. The Global Climate Strike is hosted by the Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement to protest against the lack of action on the climate crisis.

If possible, mobilize team members in your workplace to join in solidarity. CAPE regional volunteer chapters usually join the march together so there are options to join existing professional assemblies or create your own. Every single body counts as strength in numbers helps to spread awareness about the urgency of climate change. Coming together as a profession with a unified voice tells our governments that we view health and solutions to the environmental crisis priority

 

Holly Mitchell

BA, MSc(PT)

Holly is a physiotherapist and disruptive healthcare technology advocate with 10 years of clinical experience in both Canada and Australia. She graduated from McMaster University with a Master of Science in Physiotherapy and is on the Embodia Quality Assurance team for continuing education courses. Her area of interest is the connection between planetary and human health and the innovative potential health technology has in mitigating the environmental impacts of the healthcare industry. Holly currently consults with big employers on business opportunities for virtual injury prevention services and industrial sports medicine programs. Her free time is spent figuring out what exactly goes into the recycling bin, chasing her toddler son, figuring out adult ballet, kayaking, and camping in the great Canadian wilds. 
 
Twitter: @hmitchellTO