Environmental degradation poses an unprecedented threat to human health. The World Health Organisation says that between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress.
But the health sector has a considerable impact on the environment, contributing comparable greenhouse gas emissions to the airline or shipping industry, creating a paradoxical toll on the health of people in the UK and around the world.
Through the TRANSFoM project, the Faculty of Medicine is trying to work more sustainably in our labs and by reducing reliance on single use plastics, assessing how we travel to work, and our recycling habits.
We are also improving our sustainability through our education provision to ensure the health professionals of tomorrow are equipped with the tools to both deliver healthcare in a changing environment and to do so sustainably.
For the past few years James Bevan has supported the Faculty to embed planetary health and sustainability topics into the curriculum. James was previously a sustainability consultant advising large corporates on sustainability strategy. He then joined the BM4 course in 2016, graduating in 2020 before joining the Faculty as a member of staff.
Working with Professor Paul Roderick, James set up the Southampton Medical School Climate Change and Sustainability Infusion Project, which provided lecturers with content to introduce planetary health and sustainability into their teaching.
“The project was designed to give small amounts of information about planetary health and sustainability in digestible amounts,” James explained. “Medical students have an enormous amount of work to deal with and the content is dense, so we were very aware that we didn’t want to overwhelm them. However, we know that this is an incredibly important subject and doctors need to be aware of the challenges.
“The content needed to be relevant to their future career and provide support and understanding about the link between health, environmental degradation and sustainability. We were really pleased with the response from both students and teaching colleagues. Everyone is really concerned about environmental degradation and sustainability, but they don’t necessarily know how to integrate it into their everyday jobs. People responded really well to the content and were very welcoming of the project.”
To maintain the momentum of the Climate Change and Sustainability Infusion Project, James is now a Planetary Health Teaching Fellow for the Faulty. He is working with Inna Walker and Kalyanaraman Kumaran to combine sustainability with public and global health to make up the Population and Planetary Health (PPH) theme that will run through all the curricula.
Collaborating with lecturers in the Faculty, the amount of planetary health content and teaching in the curriculum across all courses is increasing and James provides two lectures to final year students about sustainability and surgery and healthcare system sustainability and resilience.
James said: “We wanted to continue the success of the first project but embed it further into our curriculum. In their first years, students get exposure to relevant planetary health information which has been integrated into already existing teaching sessions across many different subject areas from nutrition to cardiology to kidney disease. As students’ progress into the more clinical aspects of the course, we have more practical ways in which we teach to help them reflect on how their individual practice could be more sustainable. And then in their final year, I give specific lectures. It’s really rewarding to lead this opportunity for the Faculty.”
The Faculty has also just submitted its first Planetary Health Report Card, a metric-based tool for evaluating and improving planetary health content in health professional schools. James set up a student group to complete the card showcases good practice and identifies areas for improvement. There are also plans to create a specific Population and Planetary Health module that future cohorts of students will complete has part of their medical degree.
James concluded: “We are ahead of the curve, not many other medical schools are taking such a proactive approach so it’s great to see us taking an opportunity to modernise our curriculum to include a fast-growing area of medical science and be an early leader in an exciting field.”