Research Snapshot: What do northern Ontario health professionals need for climate action in their roles?

What you need to know

Health professionals in northern Ontario view climate change as a threat to current and future health. However, most feel somewhat uncomfortable and uncertain about engaging in climate action in their role as health professionals, so they are engaging with climate change issues outside their work.

This study highlights the need for collaboration among health professionals, climate scientists and local experts to prevent knowledge and engagement silos. It also stresses the need to establish a network of engaged northern health professionals to increase and diversify education. The researchers recommend that climate action should become an explicit part of every health professional’s role to eliminate feelings of uncertainty surrounding appropriateness of climate engagement, while mandating designated time to allocate and help balance demanding workloads.

What is this research about?

Large health disparities related to the climate emergency exist among the geographically isolated and marginalized communities of northern Ontario. Chronic illness, food insecurity, premature mortality and suicide are often more common in these communities than in the rest of the province and are experienced disproportionally among Indigenous populations.

Health professionals want to do more in addressing climate change, but there is a lack of understanding and information on what they can do in their roles. This study looks at northern Ontario health professionals’ knowledge, perceptions and concerns in relation to climate change in rural, remote and resource-dependent settings. The researchers also suggest ways that health professionals can take action to address the climate crisis.

What did the researchers do?

Researchers conducted interviews with 19 climate-engaged health professionals, looking at the trends and issues with respect to their perceptions of climate change and climate mitigation in the rural and remote context of northern Ontario. A participant recruitment framework allowed for a diversity of experiences and perspectives across various health occupations, from emergency care providers to public health professionals, and a range of allied health professionals.

Participants met the following inclusion criteria:

  1. They had experience working in northern Ontario as a health professional.
  2. They self-identified as a “climate change leader” — an individual who is engaged and committed to advancing climate change solutions to protect health.

Although researchers were successful in recruiting a diverse sample in terms of age, gender, and occupation, none of the participants self-identified as Indigenous to northern Ontario.

What did the researchers find?

Participants felt climate change is a serious health threat to communities in northern Ontario and further driving inequities. The impact is not just seen on physical health but also mental health and wellbeing. Participants felt engagement with climate change within their role could be strengthened to protect health.

Participants described several challenges to this work, including current expectations of the health professionals’ role, and the politicization of climate change as a topic. About half said their roles require them to be unbiased and worried that engagement in climate change work might be seen as “pushing an agenda”, and potentially damaging the trusted relationship between clients, community and the health professional. Some said there is a need to find ways to address climate change that are appropriate to the northern Ontario context. They also felt the need to find ways to collaborate and to enhance education.

Four themes emerged:

  1. Climate change as a major threat to human health. Participants all agreed that climate change has complex health impacts in individuals and populations. The majority of participants felt the issue is an urgent matter that requires immediate action. As a first step, there is a need to understand the impacts of climate change on health and ways to prevent further damage.
  2. The interconnectedness of climate-related health concerns impacting the North. The main health impacts of concern were increased vector-borne disease, food insecurity, and extreme weather events. Participants mentioned personal and observational experiences of clients and colleagues experiencing mental health impacts of climate change. They described the impacts of traumatic events due to climate change, such as displacement and loss of social and health services, as well as difficulty accessing safe and culturally appropriate foods. Some described impacts such as grief, trauma and overwhelming sadness, and in some cases anxiety or depression, but they could not with certainty name climate change as a direct cause. Among Indigenous clients, they also described a loss of identity and of land, and of connection to the environment, a key part of Indigenous culture.
  3. Feelings of uncertainty around engaging in climate action. All participants believed they have a role to play in climate action but felt that certain professionals are better suited than others to do so. Regulated and allied health professionals within this study, such as acute care physicians and nurses, saw climate change action falling into the role of public health professionals. Public health professionals shared this perspective and noted that their governing bodies currently mandate that their work address climate change. Many participants felt it is important for health professionals to have a united message and they should address climate action together.
    Participants felt there is a need for more education on the topic among health professionals as well as practical tools for communication and advocacy. Participants acknowledged the responsibility and moral obligation they felt to educate the public by communicating about the health risks of climate change, and call for action as part of large-scale advocacy.
  4. Adopting mitigation in the North. Participates pointed to the use of active transportation, primarily the use of bicycles, as a way to reduce the impacts of climate change. But many also said it is difficult to use active transportation in northern Ontario communities due to its expansive geography, weather, lack of infrastructure and a dominant ”car culture”. The extreme cold and heavy snow also was identified as limiting factor.

How can you use this research?

This study shows that participating health professionals have the desire to: become more confident in understanding climate change as a health issue, better communicate about climate impacts and solutions, provide appropriate care and effective public health responses, and engage in advocacy and action for meaningful change. They expressed a need for enhanced education, training and knowledge of the health impacts and health co-benefits of climate action. Researchers also suggest the use of news and media outreach, as well as greater public engagement to enhance cross-sector collaboration. Future research should also incorporate the missing perspectives of healthcare providers, who self-identify as Indigenous and/or who practice traditional medicine using decolonizing methodologies, and/or lived and worked in remote First Nation communities in the far north of the province.

About the researchers

Robert Sanderson, Northern Ontario Climate Change and Health Collaborative Project Coordinator1

Lindsay P. Galway, Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Social-Ecological Health2

  1. Northwestern Health Unit, 10 1st St N, Kenora, Canada
  2. Department of Health Sciences, Lakehead University, 955 Oliver Rd, Thunder Bay, Canada

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