Rural GPs and the health effects of climate change

05 February 2014

With heatwaves becoming hotter and longer, and arriving earlier and more often, increased attention has turned to the likely adverse health consequences of climate change for the 6.7 million residents of rural and remote Australia. The results of a study of rural and regional GPs published in the February 2014 issue of the Australian Journal of Rural Health show that although GPs have an important role in preparing health services to meet the challenge of climate change, there is little research on their role or their awareness of the issue. Investigating their role within the broader public health response to climate change was a research priority identified in the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Plan.

The study, by Dr Rachael Purcell and Associate Professor Joe McGirr of the University of Notre Dame Australia, reports the results of a survey of GPs in the Murrumbidgee Medicare Local in south-west NSW.

The survey results show that a majority of GPs accepted the scientific consensus on climate change. (The size of the minority which did not is consistent with other health professionals and lay persons.) Participants recognised the health importance of long-term planning for recovery from drought, but were uncertain about the capacity of their local health service to respond to a range of extreme weather events or natural disasters.

A number of the GPs in the survey accepted that health services needed to be better prepared to respond to extreme weather events, and for acute disaster response capacity to be strengthened, particularly in smaller communities (with less than 10,000 people). Only a few of the GPs in smaller rural communities considered their health service to have the capacity to provide ongoing care during drought. This finding raises concerns about the capacity of rural health providers to manage the predicted increase in demand for services, such as mental health services.

NRHA Executive Director, Gordon Gregory, said: “Making our health services 'climate-change-ready' should be a top priority. Our GPs need to be confident in their own capacity and in that of the other health services in their local area. It's not just about the readiness of GPs; there would need to be an integrated response from all health professionals in rural and remote areas and they all need to be adequately prepared for adverse weather events.”

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Contact: Gordon Gregory – Executive Director, NRHA: 02 6285 4660

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