Rural GPs ill prepared for health impact of climate change

Associate Professor Joe McGirr

5 February 2013

General practitioners in rural New South Wales are concerned that local health services don’t have the capacity to cope with the health issues that arise as a result of extreme weather events associated with climate change, a study by academics at The University of Notre Dame Australia has revealed.

Published in The Australian Journal of Rural Health, the study conducted for the National Rural Health Alliance by Associate Professor Joe McGirr and Ms Rachael Purcell of Notre Dame’s School of Medicine, Sydney, found between 33 per cent and 44 per cent of GP respondents working in south-west NSW were unsure or did not agree that their health service had the capacity to provide an initial response to an extreme weather event.

“Our findings indicate a concern for health service preparedness, particularly in smaller rural communities,” Associate Professor McGirr says.

“General practitioners play a key role in health care delivery in rural areas and such variable levels of confidence in the ability of rural health services to respond to the impact of extreme weather events caused by climate change should be a concern for the wider health community.”

There is a pre-existing health disadvantage for those living in a rural community which leads to an increased vulnerability to the health impacts of climate change, including extreme weather events in the context of storm, flood, bushfire, drought, and extreme heat and cold. In particular, the mental health impacts of drought, natural disasters and decreased agricultural productivity are likely to negatively influence rural communities.

“We found that a relatively low number of GPs, working in smaller rural communities, considered their health service to have the capacity to provide ongoing care during drought which raises concerns about the current capacity of rural health providers to manage the predicted increase in demand for mental health services,” Associate Professor McGirr says.

“We need to consider closely the views of GPs when preparing rural communities for the possible health effects of climate change. They are highly trusted and play a critical leadership role in improving the health of their communities.”

The study included a survey of 68 GPs and GP registrars working in Rural Remote Metropolitan Areas. The study assessed rural GPs’ perceptions towards climate change and their recommendations for rural health service adaptation strategies.

Seventy-six per cent of respondents agreed that climate change has substantial public health implications while 79 per cent of respondents considered farmers, children, the elderly, homeless persons and persons identified as being of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin as vulnerable to the health impacts of a changing climate.

Strengthening acute disaster capacity response was identified by 61 per cent of respondents as their first or second preference for assistance in preparing to respond to a natural disaster or extreme weather event. Long-term disaster recovery phase planning was also regarded as important.

Notre Dame’s School of Medicine, Sydney is located in the historic parish buildings associated with the Sacred Heart Parish in Darlinghurst. It is supported by six rural campuses throughout NSW and Victoria.

Hannah Guilfoyle: Tel (02) 8204 4141;