Using digital health to mitigate climate change

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The overarching crisis that has come to define the 21st century is that of climate change. Climate events such as heat waves, bushfires, and hurricanes put pressure on already fragile healthcare systems and often highlight the need for proactive preparation and resilient health systems. Healthcare itself also contributes a large portion of waste and greenhouse gases to the global carbon footprint, which must be mitigated in order to promote sustainability of healthcare and the environment.

To propel research in the climate change space, PCHSS lead investigator Professor Enrico Coiera and colleague Professor Farah Magrabi (PCHSS Research Stream 1.2) recently edited a special issue of the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association (JAMIA). It provides various proposals for how to mitigate the effects of climate change on human health, with a particular focus on the use of data and health informatics. Within this issue, Professors Coiera and Magrabi and colleague Hania Rahimi-Ardabili published a comprehensive scoping review of the literature on digital health responses to climate change.

In this review, one hundred and forty-two articles were identified to have covered this topic from 1947 to 2022, with a notable increase in literature within the last 3 years. The majority of studies came from high-income countries such as the United States, which may be a point of improvement considering that low-income countries are the most likely to experience the adverse effects of climate change.

Across these articles, the authors identified three problem domains that digital health can solve. First, the impact of health services on climate change, where communication services such as telehealth, e-prescriptions and electronic data capture could be avenues for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of the health sector. While these are helpful mitigation strategies, the authors note that designs that assess these interventions should be more rigorous, and should also consider the emissions and climate impact of the technology used in the solution.

The large majority of papers focused on using digital solutions to manage infectious diseases caused by climate change, such as using surveillance systems to monitor health data for malaria cases, and managing environmental health risks such as heat stress with similar digital health processes. For example, disease risk mapping or using geographic information systems can help identify areas that have higher risk of climate-change-related health problems. Novel applications of machine learning and social media data mining may also be used to help detect environmental health events and diseases early, which may assist in better preparing the healthcare system for their impact.

As healthcare systems, governments, and the international community adjust to the inevitable crisis of climate change, this paper is an important foundation within health informatics literature and also emphasises the need for increased rigor and depth in climate change research. Research into this field has wide-reaching implications for not only the sustainability of the health care system, but the sustainability of the earth and our communities, and it is imperative that we continue to address these issues in years to come.

PCHSS researchers from the Observatory on Health System Sustainability, Dr K-lynn Smith, and Professors Yvonne Zurynski and Jeffrey Braithwaite, also contributed to this issue; read more about their article here.

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