For many nurses, the desire to push for approaches that minimize pollution and decrease waste and toxic chemical use in delivering healthcare is just common sense. After all, they have dedicated themselves professionally to making the lives of others, and their communities, healthier.
In fact, many nurses report conflicted feelings about the incredible amount of waste involved in modern health care. Disposable supplies, plastic and paper, bandages, isolation gowns, masks and medication vials all add up to one or two full trash bags of waste per patient, per shift. For many nurses, this is unacceptable and needs to change. And it is…slowly.
Earlier this year, the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments and Big Shoulders Communication Consulting collaborated on a three-part video series to create a campaign targeted to nurses interested in learning more about health and climate change. And this was just the beginning. More and more, nurses are taking an active role to educate and inform patients, other staff and the public about the integral connection between climate change and health solutions.
Nurses obey a professional standard that calls them to “practice in an environmentally safe and healthy manner.” In 2008, the American Nurses Association (ANA) expanded that standard by recognizing climate change’s profound potential to affect human and environmental health. ANA’s House of Delegates passed a resolution, encouraging nurses to “advocate for change on both individual and policy levels; to support local public policies that endorse sustainable energy sources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions; and support initiatives to decrease the contribution to global warming by the healthcare industry.”
By sheer scale alone, nurses have enormous potential for taking a leadership role in putting health at the core of climate change and sustainability. With over 3 million registered nurses in the US, nurses are the largest clinical profession in the nation. More potently, nurses have a natural fit with climate and sustainability.
“Nurses are at the heart of healthcare; in almost every healthcare encounter, there is a nurse involved.” Scheck says.
Beth Schenk, Providence-WSU’s newly appointed Nurse Scientist and a pioneer of sustainable healthcare, was one of the first to galvanize early recycling efforts in hospitals. “Nurses are the most trusted profession in the nation.
“We understand that health and illness occur in the context of other factors, such as family health, financial stress, or environmental issues. Because of presence, size, respect and the tendency to think holistically, nurses are in excellent positions to work towards creating healthy communities by promoting a healthier environment through the adoption of cleaner and renewable energy, less waste, and avoiding toxic chemical exposures.”
As growing evidence links climate change and health, nurses are in a prime position to influence in positive ways. By discussing the health effects of climate change and explaining the health and climate benefits of a climate-friendly lifestyle with the patients they come into contact with, nurses can engage in preventing ill health and protect populations from health threats before they ever enter a medical facility.
Beyond health care practices, there are many additional ways nurses can take action at individual, organizational, community, national and international levels, but first it takes self awareness. After years of research, Beth Schenk created a tool called the Nurses' Environmental Awareness Tool (NEAT) which is a resource for nurses to measure their awareness of the environmental impacts of nursing practice and how related they believe they are to health.
The tool consists of a set of 6 scales.
- It queries nurses about their ecological behaviors at home and at work, and how difficult or easy it is to take sustainable actions.
- The tool is web based and takes 10 minutes to fill out.
- It can be used to take a spot check for where a nurse’s awareness is, or it could be used as a before and after measure using an educational topic or experiential intervention.
- Next on the horizon, Schenk plans to release a parallel set of scales slightly modified for non-nurses in healthcare, called the HEAT (Healthcare Environmental Awareness Tool).
These days, Schenk has a new role as an Assistant Research Professor where she plans to integrate sustainable healthcare content into existing WSU nursing courses. Schenk also wants to develop an interprofessional course centering on environmental stewardship in health care.
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