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The heat is on: heatwave puts pressure on health services

This summer Australia has endured record breaking temperatures and the hottest December on record, with the 27th of December becoming the hottest nationally recorded mean maximum at 40.19C.

At the time of writing, the temperature across all of South Australia is 45C, there are bushfires in Tasmania and power outage warnings in Victoria.

The rising temperatures are a dangerous time for those most vulnerable in the community and put additional strain on public health infrastructure and emergency services in Australia.

Dr Doug Shaw, public health physician and member of Doctors for the Environment Australia, said that as well as the very young, very old and pregnant women, heatwaves are especially taxing on our frontline health workers.

“Our colleagues, particularly emergency services, will be required to be out today, and they need to keep themselves as well hydrated as possible,” he said.

Shaw pointed to recent ramping issues in his native SA as a big issue during the heatwave, for patients and health workers, as well as general increased workload.

“Another impact on our health worker colleagues is just increased workload. They may be in air-conditioned emergency departments or the wards, or the general practice but [the heatwave] increases the workload of an already stretched healthcare system.”

Going forward, Shaw suggested the SA government are looking at alternative ways to cope with future heatwaves and any potential blackouts.

“The organisation that I am a member of, Doctors for the Environment Australia, strongly advocated for a concentrated solar thermal power station to be built at Port Augusta – which will get to 49C today.

“The previous SA Government has contracted that all government services will be supplied with energy from that plant when it is built, so that is 100 per cent renewable energy, including our hospitals. Which is quite encouraging,” he said.

As we experience these heatwaves, we inevitably see a marked spike in heat related deaths, prior, during and up to 24 hrs after the heatwave.

However, Dr John Van Der Kallen, lecturer in the School of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Newcastle, has been impressed this year with government efforts to increase awareness in response to heat events this year.

“I’m pretty impressed by, say, NSW Health’s response with media releases and video releases on how to manage the heat, which is really the first time I have seen this,” he said.

Van Der Kallen advises increased vigilance when it comes to the elderly and implores the young or friends and family to check in on those at risk.

Being proactive in regard to dehydration, especially as certain medicines dehydrate the elderly, is key, said Van Der Kallen.

“Often the reason the elderly is at risk is they are on medication,” he said. “Their physiological responses to heat are not the same as a younger person. A younger person might feel thirsty earlier, might feel weak earlier, might get headaches earlier. An elderly person’s responses can be quite dulled.

“We have to start adapting to these events. This year had been unprecedented, but unfortunately this is what is going to happen as the world gets hotter.”

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