A recent graduate from the University of Melbourne Medical School, Sophie Gascoigne-Cohen has just become a doctor. After five years of study, she is now an intern at St Vincent’s Hospital, where she is gradually getting used to the junior doctor’s lot of long hours, night shifts and new-found clinical responsibilities. Although this transition is daunting enough, Dr Gascoigne-Cohen is one of a growing number of young doctors who are simultaneously taking on an even bigger challenge, namely, climate change.
“Climate change is the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century. I believe that doctors have a responsibility to contribute to the ongoing task of minimising climate change – people’s lives and health depend on it,” she says.
According to the World Health Organization, the main health impacts of climate change include heat stress, extreme weather events such as floods, bushfire and drought, malaria, diarrhoea, and malnutrition.
Climate change is also expected to affect mental health and non-communicable diseases including obesity and asthma, increase the risk of armed conflict due to resource scarcity, and create conditions that necessitate the mass migration of ‘climate refugees’.
”All of these things are bad for health, and will be on a scale that is almost unimaginable,” Dr Gascoigne-Cohen says.
Active on environmental issues in her medical student days, Dr Gascoigne-Cohen co-founded the Melbourne University Green Health Group in 2009, which subsequently organised a seminar on climate change, bushfires and health, a competition to educate medical students about their carbon footprints, and a public action in the lead-up to Copenhagen.
In the same year, she also co-convened the inaugural Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) student conference at Newman College.
“That conference brought together medical students from around Australia to talk about health and environment issues and was very productive,” she says. “It led to the development of Code Green – a national climate change and health campaign led by student members of DEA.”
In 2011, Code Green culminated in a national week of action involving tree plantings, film screenings and public lectures to highlight the need for urgent action on climate change.
DEA is a not-for-profit organisation which utilises the skills of the medical profession to address ill health resulting from damage to the natural environment.
Dr Gascoigne-Cohen says she is glad she got involved with DEA because it has brought her into contact with so many inspiring role models.
“The doctors I’ve met through DEA set a fantastic example in terms of meaningfully contributing to public debate while continuing to work as clinicians and researchers,” she says.
“In Victoria, for example, DEA members have briefed politicians on the health impacts of coal, challenged the development of a coal-fired power station at Anglesea on health grounds, and monitored developments relating to coal-seam gas exploration.
“DEA members have been extremely supportive of medical student efforts to address climate change. During Code Green Week 2011, for instance, Professor Peter Doherty introduced an on-campus screening of Gasland organised by medical students. The film highlights the issue of ‘fracking’ for coal-seam gas, which DEA is concerned about because of its direct health risks through such things as ground water contamination and indirect health risks through carbon emissions.
Nobel Laureate Professor Doherty, from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Melbourne, is a member of the DEA’s Scientific Advisory Committee, and published a 2007 book on climate change entitled A Light History of Hot Air. He was also a signatory of the DEA submission on coal-seam gas earlier this year.
“It meant a lot to us that someone of Professor Doherty’s standing lent his weight to this event,” says Dr Gascoigne-Cohen. “Many people came along because of the chance to hear him speak and it definitely contributed to the overall success of the evening.”
Another University of Melbourne academic and DEA member who has mentored students is Associate Professor Grant Blashki of the Nossal Institute for Global Health. Associate Professor Blashki is a co-founder of DEA and current head of the Health Equity theme within the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute.
“Working with medical students is one of the most rewarding aspects of my role,” he says. “Not only are they smart, tech-savvy and enthusiastic, but they recognise that, as future doctors, their work will require a public health perspective.”
Associate Professor Blashki teaches a subject called ‘Environmental Challenges and Global Health’ as part of the Masters of Public Health and teaches on climate change and health at the Nossal Institute. His current research includes a UNICEF project to investigate the impact of climate change on children within the Asia-Pacific region.
“I’ve found it a privilege to study medicine at a university where staff and students are working together on this global challenge”, says Dr Gascoigne-Cohen. “The DEA has achieved a lot so far and I’d encourage more students and doctors to get involved. Climate change remains a serious public health issue for the medical profession to recognise and tackle”.
Doctors for the Environment Australia: