Nurses and midwives can be “champions of change” when it comes to improving sustainability and tackling the climate crisis, according to one of England’s deputy chief nursing officers.
Professor Charlotte McArdle described climate change as a “public health emergency” and that “we must see climate change in the same way as we see patient safety”.
“By acting now, we can really make a difference”
“The reality is that it’s the biggest patient safety issue that we’re facing in the world,” said Professor McArdle, who is deputy CNO for patient safety and improvement at NHS England.
She cited the impact of climate change on health inequalities and that the World Health Organization had warned about its negative effects, for example, on clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food and secure shelter.
“The simple truth is that climate change has and will have an incalculable toil on human health and wellbeing,” warned the deputy CNO in a speech on Wednesday night.
“We have to tackle this issue with the same vigour and gusto that we do around safety,” said Professor McArdle, who was speaking at an event in London to celebrate nurse innovation on sustainability.
The event celebrated the first cohort of the Green Healthcare Leadership programme, delivered by the charity Florence Nightingale Foundation and sponsored by independent provider Nuffield Health.
The programme saw 18 nurses from across the independent sector take part in and implement innovative, sustainable healthcare projects in their workplaces.
These included carbon-reduction and waste management initiatives that have resulted in greater use of reusables, reduction of clinical waste and initiatives that de-carbonise patient pathways.
Congratulating those involved, Professor McArdle, a former chief nursing officer for Northern Ireland, described the projects as “ambitious, innovative, and very forward thinking”.
She said that she believed that nurses and midwives, as professions, had a “unique contribution to make on sustainability”.
“They are in direct contact with more people in the healthcare system – whether it’s independent sector or NHS. Nurses and midwives are stretched out across all four corners of the UK, and are often the only healthcare professionals that serve certain groups and populations,” she said.
“They have the opportunity to be the holders of hope, the hope that we need in the future, for that early intervention to protect our planet. They can also be a voice for those who can’t speak for themselves, a voice for the vulnerable. They’re definitely… champions of change.”
“I’m not sure of any other nursing strategy around the world that has sustainability as a key priority”
Professor McArdle also outlined work at national level, such as the move in October 2020 for the NHS to become the first healthcare system in the world to commit to becoming net zero on carbon.
In addition, she flagged the Greener NHS programme that she said was making “really good progress in pioneering initiatives from NHS staff up and down the country”.
She also revealed that Rodney Morton, who also attended the event, had recently been appointed as national lead for nursing, innovation and sustainability at NHS England.
Meanwhile, Professor McArdle indicated that a new nursing and midwifery strategy being developed for England would also include improving sustainability among its key priorities.
As reported by Nursing Times in October, CNO for England Dame Ruth May is leading work on a new strategy for the next three to five years.
At the time, four priority areas were cited for the strategy, including workforce and people, system leadership and integration, health equity, prevention and population health management and person-centred practice and improving outcomes.
Professor McArdle suggested that sustainability had now joined these four areas as a fifth priority to be included in the strategy.
“The CNO strategy, which we hope will be published later this year, has identified sustainability as one of the key five priorities,” she said. “And in doing so I think provides really strong national and international leadership on this important issue.”
She added: “I’m not sure of any other nursing strategy around the world that has sustainability as a key priority.”
“Crucially, I think there is hope,” she said. “By acting now, we can really make a difference. And our professions are already doing that.
“But we must act now, with the huge urgency that this needs to mitigate the crisis that’s ahead of us. We have a huge opportunity to innovate and to lead for the benefits of our communities,” she said.