How to be a green GP – doctors for sustainability and against climate change

At the beginning of September, the RCGP JIC ran our symposium on planetary health.

Planetary health, an increasingly important field incorporating global health, public health and environmental science, explores the relationship between the health of human beings and the health of the planet. By improving ecosystems and our relationship with our natural environment, we can improve the health of humans around the world and reduce the impact that climate change and other environmental problems will have on our health.

This was a very important and topical subject and this was a great opportunity to learn how to contribute to the mammoth task of reversing climate change. We had Prof Terry Kemple, Dr James Syzmankiewicz, Dr Deepa Shah and Dr Sarah Walpole come to give us some pretty hard-hitting facts about climate change and some solutions to tackle this problem.

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The programme


Climate change has been hot topic with it now being declared as an emergency. We can actively feel the weather getting more and more extreme every year although, in the UK, this is probably the milder end of the global spectrum.  Since 1976, 50% of the wildlife globally has vanished because of our activity and 50% of the coral reefs are affected by bleaching because of climate change. In 2015, many government officials pledged to do what they can to slow the deleterious effects of human consumption on the planet at the Paris Agreement. This came into force in 2016 with now 185 parties having ratified which means that there is now an (almost) global effort to combat climate change.

The Lancet commission of climate and health have stated that the current changes in heat waves, vector-borne diseases, food security is only the start of the impact on health that this climate change will have. We’re seeing an increase of malaria and cholera as well as vectors such as Aedes aegypti

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The NHS is the fifth biggest employer in the World and produces 5.4% of the UK’s greenhouse gases so shouldn’t we be leading by example? Not only is there a huge amount of waste on a daily basis produced but we are in a trusted position to influence our patient population. There appears to be so much that we can start doing.


So I spend most of my time feeling guilty about how bad my carbon footprint must be. I recycle but my block of flats doesn’t allow food waste collection and I’m just as bad as the next person for single-use plastic although I’ve started to carry my own keep cup and water bottle.

So, first things first, calculate you carbon footprint here or for a more in-depth one, click here. You can even calculate your practice’s carbon footprint here.

And then we have to figure out how to reduce it.

A captive audience!

How can a GP practice make changes?

Practical daily changes

  • Sending prescriptions electronically and ensure patients only get medication that they need
  • Start double-side printing for your printers.
  • Get involved with the GSK inhaler recycling scheme
  • Minimise patient travel by adapting how services are provided e.g. longer appointments, telephone or online consultations
  • Practices can sign up to plant trees to offset their carbon footprint
  • Encourage staff to commute in greener ways
    • Promote car-sharing to work
    • Have a practice car/bike for home visits so staff can do their day job without bringing their own car in
    • Install a shower thus minimising barriers to cycling to work
  • Lead by example and be visible role models for the changes that that we want to make
    • recycling in practice
    • patient education
      • remind patients that a lot of things that we are recommending are “good for you and good for the planet” such as healthy diets and healthy commuting
      • Prevention is always better than cure so we should be investing in social prescribing  and getting connected – with themselves, with communities and with nature (reducing isolation will mean less loneliness and therefore less low-level mental health) – in order to minimise “treatments” which invariably require packaging and waste.
        • A fact that I learnt this weekend was that 40% of GP consultations are the effects of social problems!
  • Get involved with the RCGP Green impact for health
Practice what we preach – we took all the left-over food to the local homeless shelter

What am I doing differently personally?

Good question. I’m already planning my trip to New Zealand to attend the WONCA Asia Pacific in Auckland so how am I going to justify this?

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This was my own carbon footprint calculation

Even though the symposium was only a few weeks ago, I’ve started to make changes. I’ve stopped eating meat every day; I’m that annoying person who turns up to the supermarket with bags to put their produce in; I’m planning to incorporate my annual trip to Japan with my trip to New Zealand rather than doing two separate trips; when I can change my electricity tariff, I’ll opt for a green one; I plan never to use domestic flights in the UK (apparently the most carbon emissions are at take-off and landing); and I’m thinking of going to WONCA Berlin by train.

I’m locuming so I’m limited somewhat with what I can do at work but I’ve asked the practices where I long-term locum whether I can have my smartcard registered so that I can send prescriptions electronically; I send patient information via text rather than by printing them out; I’m cycling more rather than taking the tube in London; and I’ve started using rechargeable batteries in my equipment. It doesn’t feel like much at the moment but it’s a start.

The heart-warming thing that Terry said was that “we’re not saying don’t eat meat or don’t fly but do it less and try to carbon off-set it. Think alternatives. Pick and choose.”

The JIC symposium

For those of you who have never been before, the JIC symposium is an annual one-day event for everyone (not just young GPs) who are interested in global health. This year it was about planetary health but the theme changes every year. Keep an eye out for next year!

Organisations to know about when talking about planetary health…

Centre for sustainable healthcare

Healthcare without harm

UK Health Alliance on Climate Change

WONCA environmental working party



Extinction Rebellion

Sustainable development Unit

Dr Andy Haines (Professor of environmental change and public health)

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