11th October 2023 – Greening the health system

Inspired by a friend I’ve recently taken up jogging, using the free NHS Couch to 5k app. I’m not a natural runner; I’d much rather be out on a bike, but I figured it would help me to keep fit as I could slot in a 30 minute session from time to time into my normal daily life. It’s taken me about three months to get to week seven, but I’m still plodding on and do feel a bit fitter for it. I’ve also really enjoyed being out in the open air, on beautiful footpaths and country lanes, always with stunning views, watching swallows and goldfinches and the changes in the landscape as the seasons change.

Earlier this week, as I puffed my way back home along Bag Lane, a dog walker shouted words of encouragement, and the strap-line “health is wealth.” 

Health is wealth… the words have been ringing around my head, as I do think he is absolutely right – we give too much emphasis to monetary wealth, but it is our health that matters when it comes to living a fulfilled and happy life. And access to fresh air and exercise is free and open to all.

At the end of September I attended the opening of the new mid Cornwall Climate and Eco Hub on St Austell Street in Truro, where the amazing eco guru Manda Brookman was talking about the work Greener Practice have been doing with the health care service; in particular helping local GP surgeries to recognise how they can reduce their carbon footprint. www.greenerpractice.co.uk was set up by a group of Sheffield GPs to try and make a difference to their environmental impact, and now is the UK’s primary care sustainability network, with 31 local groups operating around the country, including our own in Cornwall.

As usual Manda’s talk was dynamic, fascinating and full of facts. There was a lot to take in. For example the biggest carbon footprint of our surgeries is not in the buildings, but in the pharmaceuticals that they prescribe, by some considerable margin, which is something I didn’t know. So the biggest gain surgeries can make is to prescribe less medicine.

Did you know that traditional inhalers are very polluting, but the new dry-powder inhalers are far less so? So just by switching the type of inhaler you use can make a difference. There were some smaller details that I hadn’t thought of; for example providing waterproof bags for homeless people means that they are able to keep their medicine dry when living on the streets. 

Manda also pointed out that we need to think in bigger systems; if our houses are poorly insulated and damp, or we have pollution through excess traffic or exposure to pesticides and nitrates, or if the cost of living crisis means we can’t afford healthy food or heat then our health will suffer, and we will need more medicine. Holistic thinking is needed at a higher level; better cycleways and footpaths so we can leave the car at home, a support for local food producers and community based shops, more allotments and places where we can convene in nature, a push to improve our housing stock and to make sure affordable options for shelter are available. If we can improve these things, then it will be for the greater good of all. However until we do, then we just have to keep plodding on as individuals doing what we can.

And what can we do? Firstly try to keep fit and eat healthily; many health problems are caused by our lifestyle choices and if we can avoid them, then our quality of life improves, as well as benefiting the environment. Secondly do ask your healthcare provider if they have signed up to the Greener Practice network. They do want to hear from you and know what you want. There are advantages for them too; the Greener Practice network will be able to steer them into what grant money may be available to improve their practice, which will be a win all round.

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