A very good iDEA

Kitty Soutar (DEA students NSW representative, University of Sydney student),
Sophie Gascoigne-Cohen (iDEA co-convener, University of Melbourne student),
James Correy (DEA students publications rep, University of Tasmania student),
Imogen Hamel-Green (iDEA co-convener, University of Melbourne student) and
Liz O'Brien (iDEA co-convener, University of Notre Dame, Fremantle student).

In early December, just prior to the much-hyped United Nations climate negotiations in Copenhagen, 40 medical students, representing 11 medical schools, descended upon Melbourne for 'iDEA', the inaugural gathering for the student division of Doctors for the Environment (DEA).

Education and networking were the focus of this three day gathering at Newman College, a beautiful venue within the University of Melbourne, where a plethora of distinguished speakers presented talks and interactive workshops. Academics, environmental activists and clinicians (some all three) provided discussion on clinical medicine, epidemiology, health economics and front-seat politics.

It was about time that medical students such as ourselves - enthusiastic, empowered, idealistic - gathered to discuss environmental issues relevant to health. Environmental sustainability, economics, social justice, and, of course, politics all grapple for our attention in the day-to-day reporting of climate change. Yet the disturbing predictions about how climate change will impact global health are being largely ignored, by both the media and the medical fraternity. There was also concern amongst the students that the public health curricula of all Australian medical schools fail to address these issues. This, despite a threat so real that last year the Lancet was moved to name climate change as ‘the biggest global health threat of the 21st century’.

Richard Di Natale, a former GP and upcoming Greens senate candidate, provided some food for thought as he discussed his growing concern about how to truly ‘make a difference’. His career has progressed from general practice through public health to more active political involvement. Similarly, Dr Merryn Redenbach, a paediatric registrar from the Royal Children's Hospital (Melbourne), spoke about her experiences as ship’s doctor with the marine wildlife conservation organisation Sea Shepherd. It was inspiring to hear from a young doctor working for a cause that she is passionate about. Merryn's description of her brief stay in a prison cell in Canada reminded us of the personal hardships that some activists are willing to endure for the sake of their beliefs.

From a medical perspective, several speakers addressed the specifics of how the medical profession might choose to act on climate change. ANU academic Dr Colin Butler, co-founder and director of the Benevolent Organisation for Development, Health and Insight, discussed sustainability and global health, introducing us to the primary, secondary and tertiary health effects of climate change, and the complex interactions between them.

Taegan Edwards, from the University of Melbourne, is a Research Fellow in the area of climate change and social justice. She spoke about the typical responses and coping mechanisms that people have to the issue of climate change. Comments from the audience showed that she had touched on a personal note and spoke of experiences that were familiar to many.

Students were also fortunate to have a round-table session with DEA Honorary Secretary and Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Adelaide University, Dr David Shearman. This included a thought-provoking discussion about the role of doctors in advocacy and leadership. Likewise, Dr Bill Williams of the Medical Association for the Prevention of War (MAPW), an organisation that spearheaded the movement against nuclear weapons, spoke enthusiastically about being a campaigner and, as a doctor, provided much encouragement and confidence that things can change.

Those whose actions are already making waves in the medical sector included Monash medical student and AMSA thinktank member Michael Loftus, and Dr Forbes McGain, a consultant anaesthetist at the Western Hospital in Victoria. Michael spoke about AMSA thinktank's recent 'Climate Code Green' campaign, resources for which included a highly-acclaimed short video (that was scheduled to be screened at COP15) and an accompanying booklet on health and climate change. Such achievements by fellow medical students emphasised to attendees that it is possible to make an impact from a grass-roots level. Dr McGain spoke about his seminal research into ‘green hospitals’, the excessive waste and unsustainable use of resources within our health system, and the many ways our hospitals can improve their green credentials without compromising infection control and health care.

The talks sparked some fascinating discussions which went on for hours, feeding into our (unmeaty) meal breaks and social event at Melbourne’s first sustainable bar, 'Council House 2'. Attendees were encouraged to be mindful of their carbon footprints whilst travelling to the conference, with many students opting for train or coach rather than flying. Most impressively, three Tasmanians cycled for three days from Hobart to Melbourne University (with a bit of help from the Bass Strait ferry)!

All in all, iDEA was a wonderful opportunity to hear from academics and doctors whose daily work enables them to explore the relationship between health and the environment. Many difficult questions were raised; no easy solutions were found. Despite this, we are confident that - in time - solutions will be found and embraced. One of the recurring themes of the conference emphasised the important role that the health sector has to play in this process. DEA students aims to generate awareness and knowledge about what our responsibilities and potential contributions are, both as individuals and as professionals.

The closing event of the conference was the election of the 2010 DEA student committee and planning for the year's events. With a wealth of inspiration to draw on, and a strong commitment to reducing the adverse impact of climate change on health, 2010 promises to be an exciting year. For more information on the work of DEA, resources and links visit www.dea.org.au or email Janie Maxwell, the national student representative at: deastudents@gmail.com.