Greener general practice: how to advocate for environmental sustainability

The climate crisis is accelerating, causing environmental destruction and a cascade of health problems. With practices making efforts to go green, how can managers create a sustainability buzz in the practice that ripples out into the local community? 

We have never been more acutely aware of climate change. Fires rage in Australia and floods abound closer to home. An emboldened girl has fought for our future in front of global leaders and more alarming statistics are revealed by the day – and yet, for many of us, climate change seems a distant threat, something indistinguishable on the horizon, something that may never touch us at all. 

Our primitive stress responses are wired to react to immediate threat, such as almost being hit by a car or waiting outside an examination room. It can be difficult, therefore, to rouse similar anxiety in response to something less immediately tangible; this is why so many of us still act like climate change isn’t happening. But our time to tune-in is now. 

Climate change and the health of the population are inextricably linked; according to Public Health England, air pollution is the biggest environmental threat to health in the UK, causing between 20,000 and 36,000 deaths a year due to long-term exposure.

We are, therefore, not only in a climate emergency but a public health emergency too. Fortunately, there is nowhere better than primary care to make climate change a priority and lead by example. Practices lie at the heart of local communities; they are heavily relied upon and trusted by the public and so are well-placed to be potent advocates for change.  Practice employees have a duty to advocate for the better health of their patients – and many climate initiatives have cross-over with the promotion of healthier lifestyles. 

“Climate change is about social and environmental justice and doctors need to be advocates for their patients and their countries and create a social movement across the health sector,” says Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet.

So, practice managers are a vital a part of the climate equation. With GPs swamped by ever-increasing clinical demand, practice managers are perfectly placed to make environmental decisions on behalf of their practices. 

You may already have taken steps towards making your practice more environmentally sustainable, such as procuring green inhalers and switching to renewable energy sources. How can you lead by example and inspire your patients to go green as well?

Green Advertising 

People are often not aware of the link between climate change, pollution and their health or the environmental volunteering opportunities in their local areas. You could create a ‘community’ bulletin board for your practice, advertising local conservation groups and charity events. This is a homely touch and ensures your patients your practice is connected to the wider community.  

It is also very worthwhile producing or procuring a leaflet about the ways patients can live healthier lifestyles by making greener choices – for example, encouraging patients to walk, run or cycle to work instead of taking the car. 

Medical posters in your waiting room can be supplemented by posters showcasing the link between a healthier climate and healthier humans, with simple and effective images showing patients how they can reduce their carbon footprint. Growing vegetables and gardening, for example, can inject a sense of responsibility and purpose into someone’s life, improving mental health – and it’s also a great way to save money. Brainstorming simple, sustainable life changes and creating a poster or leaflet advocating for them is an excellent way to empower patients. 

Investing in practice bikes 

Encouraging staff to cycle to work can often be difficult, but procuring some ‘practice bikes’ that staff can borrow from the surgery is a great incentive. If patients see the practice’s cycle to work scheme, it may prompt them to consider cycling too – especially if the surgery is located near established cycle paths or parks. 

The Wessex Faculty at the Royal College of General Practitioners have recently introduced the GP on call scheme, where practices can buy subsidised, specially adapted bikes to use on home visits. The scheme aims to help healthcare professionals become more active and to make GPs more visible to the local community. It is also an excellent way to travel sustainably. For more information, click here

Prescribing conservationism 

We are living in an epidemic of loneliness. In December last year, Pulse magazine uncovered that four–in-10 GPs regularly see lonely patients who are not physically unwell. In cases such as these it is important that your practice is well-connected to social opportunities being offered in the community. Establishing a relationship with a local conservation group, for example, may allow clinicians or administrators to ‘prescribe’ environmental conservation volunteering to patients who are physically capable but lonely, lacking in motivation or feeling they are lacking in purpose. Conservationism is a great way to meet new people and to make friends, as well as keeping active and healthy. You could even put links to your local conservation groups on your website and advertise them in your practice. 

Identifying a ‘sustainability champion’

You may have a practice employee who is particularly passionate about the environment and is keen to expand the practice’s efforts around sustainability, as well as brainstorming ways for patients to participate in greener, healthier lifestyles. Much like becoming a dementia champion, this person could be made responsible for discussing environmental matters at practice meetings, sharing their sustainable ideas and reaching out to collaborate with local charities, conservation groups and nutritionists. Making environmentalism a constant, key priority in your practice is a way to stay environmentally up-to-date, as well as leading the way for patients.  

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