Our climate is burning our health

Jo Brown is the Manager of Health and Wellbeing at Southern Grampians Glenelg Primary Care partnership.

JO BROWN considers responses to one of the greatest health threats faced by rural and regional communities.

‘Pip is a community nurse who knows the real value of small talk.’

This is the first line of a short animation called ALLready: there’s no such thing as small talk, which illustrates the way important information is shared and acted upon in rural Australia.

It’s based on work led by Southern Grampians Glenelg Primary Care Partnership (SGGPCP), highlighting the importance of relationships between staff at a bush nursing centre and vulnerable community members.

These kinds of community relationships, and the conversations they facilitate, are increasingly important when it comes to issues around climate change.

Climate change is identified by the World Health Organisation as among the biggest threats to human health. As well as the immediate and obvious effects of extreme climate events like heatwaves, bushfires, storms and floods, climate change also affects the social and environmental determinants of health such as clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food and shelter.

Add to that the underlying psychosocial and mental health problems caused by climate change – including depression, PTSD, grief, associated family violence or substance abuse, anxiety and pessimism about the future, and change in townships and farming practices – and it’s easy to see why climate change might be devastating to human health.

Climate change amplifies disadvantage. Research conducted by both VCOSS and the World Health Organisation has identified that those on low incomes and experiencing disadvantage are likely to be most affected by its health impacts.

Some of the main vulnerability issues related to climate change, as identified by SGGPCP and partner organisations, are:

  • household energy efficiency
  • household water use
  • transport
  • affordable food supply
  • community strength and resilience
  • extreme climatic events

While some of these issues might not appear directly related to health care, their impacts are felt in ways that directly and indirectly affect the health of vulnerable community members. For instance, household energy efficiency correlates with protection from extreme heat and cold, financial stress, security and comfort, all of which have an obvious effect on health.

So what role can Primary Care Partnerships (PCPs) and the broader health and community services sector play in holistically reducing the vulnerability of their communities?

The power of the trusted relationships that exist between health and community organisations and people in rural communities is key.

Like Pip in the Balmoral Fire Connect project, people in the health and community services sector can extend the benefits they provide beyond clinical health care by harnessing the power of relationships. The partnership structure of PCPs can help strengthen relationships  with the community and health sector, link with government, academics and policy makers and build community resilience.

So, for instance, a partnership with Sustainability Victoria in 2009 and later through the Australian Government Low Income Energy Efficiency Program in 2013 allowed SGGPCP to lead major projects  with partner organisations and the community. These original projects, Pass the Parcel and Glenelg SAVES, used community networks in innovative ways to help people live more comfortably.

Pass the Parcel provided participating households with a temperature data logger that was literally passed from home to home, giving participants insight into energy efficiency and comfort levels. This was in tandem with community workshops held across the region where participants learned tips from experts to improve comfort and reduce energy costs.

Glenelg SAVES used a participatory training approach to ‘upskill’ Community Support Workers (CSWs) around household energy efficiency, so they could implement changes in their own homes and then take what they learned out into the community, supporting energy efficiency practices and improvements in the homes of their clients.

That short animation featuring Pip the community nurse – ALLready: there’s no such thing as small talk – was produced in 2017, following on from the Balmoral Fire Connect project, which was led by SGGPCP and highlighted the importance of relationships between staff at the Balmoral Bush Nursing Centre and vulnerable community members. The work, which led SGGPCP and their partners to a Fire Awareness Award and being announced as the Victorian Community Winner  of the Resilient Australia Awards, showcases the potential of relationships built over time and through adversity to change and even save lives.

There’s no such thing as small talk. In combatting the effects of climate change, the challenge might just be in talking broadly – reorienting the traditional way we work and partnering with those who can work with us to enhance resilience.