What next for planetary health and RSTMH?

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Friday, 6 October 2017

As our world becomes more interconnected and interdependent, we must consider a wider approach to improving global health.

This inspired us to focus our Annual Meeting on the topic of planetary health. It’s a term defined in a variety of ways by different people, including this definition from The Lancet:

“The achievement of the highest attainable standard of health, wellbeing, and equity worldwide through judicious attention to the human systems – political, economic, and social – that shape the future of humanity and the Earth’s natural systems that define the safe environmental limits within which humanity can flourish.

“Put simply, planetary health is the health of human civilisation and the state of the natural systems on which it depends.”

Broadly speaking, it can encompass the widest possible context – economic, environmental, social and political factors and how they affect human health.

Challenges highlighted

The meeting brought up many challenges. Those around strengthening health systems, the current taught economic framework, the lack of clean water and effective sanitation, infection and vector control, conflict and forced migration, and climate change which brings new challenges, especially to poorer communities across the world.

Though more data is being captured that can help build a better picture of the challenges we face, it is not always consistent. The need for better data was highlighted by many of the day’s speakers. We heard about the issues caused by rapid urbanisation and the impacts of changing weather patterns and demography. Impacts such as reduced crop yields, the loss of pollinators and thus reduced access to food and water.

We heard first-hand about the direct and indirect health risks of what happens then people flee conflict and the perilous journeys they are forced to take. 

And then the lack of systems in place to solve complex issues in tropical medicine. For example, the sudden rise of dengue and chikungunya in southern Europe and parts of the Americas.

Innovation and progress in the field

We then turned our attention to addressing these challenges in a planetary and holistic way. Innovation, in products and approaches to work, came up time and time again.

We heard about new approaches to how we should view economics as a discipline, as well as how we build resilient and sustainable cities for the future. New products presented included maize crops which are engineered to be water-efficient.

Another area of innovation was data collection. As already mentioned, we need to better capture global data to document, understand and learn from changing patterns in population growth and movements, health and conflict.

The future of planetary health

As a relatively new field of study, we are urged to use clear and simple language when we talk about planetary health, and to try and avoid being too theoretical. We should ensure the narrative avoids becoming too overwhelming or negative.

With the interdisciplinary nature of the field, it must strive to be focused, realistic and not too extreme in its approach and goals. The approach should be strategic and, at the same time, aim for concrete outcomes, with health as the central focus. Policy recommendations should include the impact on human health and the environment.

What next for RSTMH?

We're evaluating the meeting and have also asked the attendees and speakers to reflect on what our next steps should be. We will then define and share a clear and timely plan focusing on planetary health.

Some current areas of interest, however, are:

  • Playing a leadership role in convening people to engage in discussions relating to planetary health.
  • Developing tools that help evaluate policy and its impact on the health of humans and the planet.
  • Calling for research in key driving factors, for example conflict and migration.
  • Scoping the potential for planetary health fellowships.
  • Providing early career professionals and researchers with guidance and a forum to engage in science policy and science advocacy.
  • Encouraging and developing public awareness of the links between human and planetary health, at the local, national and international level.
  • Supporting calls for more, and more consistent data capture.