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Extreme weather events in Australia – a new challenge for health care provision.

Extreme weather events have made their presence felt in Australia over the last few years and are expected to become more frequent. Whether it is extreme heat, record flooding or tropical storms, these events share the common element of huge potential impact on morbidity and mortality for thousands of Australians.  To date, events such as these have been considered infrequent.  In such circumstances health resources can be pooled, stretched and borrowed to meet a temporary need.

However such events occurring simultaneously or in succession across Australia have the potential to place an enormous burden on health resources. Consider the past week.  Most of Australia was suffering from extreme heat that will undoubtedly have had detrimental health effects on many vulnerable people (including homeless, elderly, children and those with a range of chronic conditions). Simultaneously there were well over 100 fires burning across the country threatening the physical and mental health of the populations they affected and Western Australia braced for a cyclone.

As I looked at the vast swathes of Australia under threat and considered a worst case scenario I could not help but wonder where the resources come from to manage the short, medium and long term health impacts on a population over such a vast geography.

Extreme weather events and natural disasters can increase demand for emergency, acute and mental health services, exacerbate chronic disease and require preventative care of the elderly and vulnerable.  As a community we need to seriously consider where we believe these resources can be found for multiple or simultaneous events.

Innovation on a huge scale will be required if potential demand is to be met without compromising current service provision.

I have begun to wonder whether at some point in the future we will require a military style mobile health operation able to be deployed at any location to effectively manage an array of health requirements. Such services would need to draw on the best e-health, home based care and multidisciplinary working models available. They would require dual-purpose buildings to house them and a workforce additional to that which we so heavily rely on now.

While my own ideas of what is required are purely hypothetical pondering, the question remains; when will co-ordinated national planning and building of such capacity occur? If not now – then when?

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