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Reflections of a flexi-placement

13th December 2022
Ben Rossington, an NHS graduate management trainee reflects on his experience of undertaking a placement at the UKHACC.

For eight weeks in September-October this year, I was lucky to work at the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change (UKHACC) and gain an insight into its important work in bringing together health professionals to advocate for just responses to the climate and ecological crises. I am a trainee on the NHS’ Graduate Management Training scheme. As part of the scheme, trainees are permitted to undertake an 8-week ‘flexi’ placement outside of the NHS. I am interested in and passionate about climate action – I am involved in climate activism with Extinction Rebellion – as well as healthcare. So, I decided to undertake a placement for an organisation working at the intersection of climate change, sustainability and health. Elaine Mulcahy, the Director of UKHACC, kindly agreed to take me on, and allowed me to contribute to several interesting and worthwhile projects. A summary of what I did gives you some idea of what UKHACC has been doing over the last couple of months.

The project I focused on most was the UKHACC-coordinated UK Policy Brief produced to accompany the recent the 2022 Global Report of the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change. Drawing on UK data from the Lancet Countdown’s Global Report – which starkly states that ‘health is at the mercy of fossil fuels’ – our UK Policy Brief called on the UK government to protect health by ending fossil fuel subsidies, reducing air pollution, and improving access to green space. I enjoyed working with Elaine, and colleagues from the Lancet Countdown and UKHACC members, to refine the draft of the brief and help produce and disseminate associated communication materials (including a press release, a social media toolkit, and an infographic) to journalists, the UKHACC membership and the general public.

Some of the evidence we presented in the brief is disheartening: for example, UK government fossil fuel subsidies have increased by 35% from 2010-19, polluted air contributed to 27,000 premature UK deaths in 2020, and 6 out 10 UK urban centres had limited green spaces in 2021. However, collaborating with UKHACC members to produce the text strengthened my belief in the power of health voices to articulate a vision of a just, healthy world – and in their ability to push policymakers to get us there. Focusing on the health emergency caused by climate change allows us to demonstrate the enormous health benefits to be gained by taking climate action. For instance, research by the Clean Air Fund published earlier this year indicates that reducing levels of fine particulate matter pollution (PM2.5) pollution to 10 μg/m3 by 2030 would result in 98,000 life years gained annually with people living longer, suffering less ill health, a reduced burden on the health service, and fewer days lost to absenteeism in the workplace.

Moreover, not only do those working in healthcare have a moral duty to encourage action on the climate crisis to help protect the populations they serve, but evidence suggests that framing climate change in terms of its health impacts helps build vital public support for climate action. This is why it is worth all UKHACC members signing and publicly supporting the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, which has been endorsed by the World Health Organisation and almost 200 other health organisations worldwide, including UKHACC.

During my placement, I also played a small part in communicating the call from over 250 health journals across the world urging world leaders to deliver climate justice for Africa ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) taking place in Cairo, Egypt in November 2022. The editorial, which is authored by 16 editors of leading biomedical journals across Africa, was simultaneously published in 50 African journals and other leading international medical journals such as The British Medical Journal, The Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine, the National Medical Journal of India, and the Medical Journal of Australia. UKHACC helped to coordinate communication strategies to spread the word about this unprecedented intervention. I drafted promotional tweets and sent some from the UHKACC Twitter account – which isn’t as easy as it sounds when you are new to Twitter!

As well as learning more about effective social media communication through helping to manage the UKHACC Twitter account, I drafted the October 2022 edition of the UKHACC Bulletin. When receiving previous editions of the Bulletin by email, I had appreciated its useful list of campaigns, events, courses, articles, reports and videos – but until I wrote most of it myself, I didn’t realise how much work Elaine puts into producing it every month! I enjoyed learning more about what is going on in the climate and health world, and collating this information for UKHACC supporters. Realising how much progress is being made by dozens of organisations towards a healthy climate for all gives me renewed hope, despite the slew of depressing recent reports on the climate crisis.

I urge all UKHACC members – and prospective members – to build on progress in this area by delivering increased institutional support for sustained climate action by healthcare organisations. A recent survey of 50 doctors and 50 nurses based in the U.K., France and Germany by Economist Impact found that they overwhelmingly recognised the urgent need to deliver healthcare much more sustainably and mitigate the impact of climate change on their patients. However, most of the respondents didn’t feel they have the right support to do so. This is where UK healthcare organisations can make a difference. They must align their work with the NHS’ world-leading plan to reach net-zero by 2045 by helping to educate healthcare professionals on climate change and health, supporting climate action advocacy by staff, and collaborating to decarbonise clinical pathways.

While at UKHACC, I joined a team doing ongoing research into the number and type of articles published on the topic of climate change and human health in biomedical journals. In the role of a public representative, I am working with the Chair of UKHACC, Dr Richard Smith, a researcher from the British Medical Journal, an academic at The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and a medical librarian from the University of New Mexico. The team aims to publish a descriptive study in the New Year. I look forward to contributing more to this project in the coming months.

I am sad to be leaving UKHACC, but I learned a lot during my brief time here. In my future NHS roles, I will continue to promote the work of the Alliance and advocate health-focused action on the climate emergency. After I finish the NHS’ Graduate Management Training Scheme in September 2023, I want to work on climate change, sustainability and health – either within the NHS or for another organisation – so I may be able to contribute to UKHACC’s work again. Thanks to Elaine, Richard and everyone else I worked with for being so welcoming and encouraging during my time at UKHACC. I hope the Alliance continues to grow and drive positive change.

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The author of this blog post is Ben Rossington.