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"A Sustainability Fellow In Every Hospital?": an interview with Dr Heather Lambert

WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (centre) and Dr Heather Lambert (left) arrive at the Word Health Organisation's "Walk the Talk" event.
WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (centre) and Dr Heather Lambert (left) arrive at the Word Health Organisation's "Walk the Talk" event.

Heather Lambert is a recently retired doctor at Great North Children’s Hospital at Newcastle Upon Tyne. In May, she cycled to Geneva for the launch of WHO’s “Global Walk The Talk” campaign, where she was greeted by Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organisation.

Heather has always been aware of the climate emergency - but became much more aware of children at her hospital presenting with diseases and illnesses that are related to air pollution. A key moment was when the coroner put air pollution on the death certificate of Ella Kissi Debrah. “It was a wake up call for everybody”, says Heather. “We need to be a lot more cognisant of the effects of the climate emergency and air pollution. It is probably the biggest public health threat to our children’s health.”

So what can we do about it? We spoke with Heather about what inspires her to take action and what other healthcare providers can do to affect change...

A Sustainability Fellow

Could your institution create a Sustainability Fellow? Through conversations from the Ride For Their Lives, Newcastle Hospitals Charity now provides funds to Great North Children's hospital for a Sustainability Fellow. A Sustainability Fellow is a health professional who is seconded or employed to work on sustainable healthcare, before returning to clinical practice.

Fellows gain the opportunity to learn about an important dimension of healthcare and hospitals benefit from the sustainable service changes. In Newcastle, Dr Emily Parker is the new Sustainability Fellow in Paediatric Medicine. During her fellowship year, she plans to focus on sustainable paediatric asthma care, green spaces, and carbon footprinting medicines.

“I think Newcastle hospital is very switched on in terms of trying to become carbon neutral and declaring a climate emergency”, Heather said. “But interestingly, I'd not really met our Sustainability Lead before Ride for their Lives. So there were people in the hospital doing their own work, but we weren't actually talking to each other.” Ride for Their Lives gave staff the opportunity to meet and talk with one another for the first time. “It took Ride for the Lives and getting on a bike and cycling with them to start having those conversations that I could have been having a lot more at work.”

Lobbying local government

Healthcare providers are often respected and trusted members of the community. Lobbying local government and meeting with your political representatives can be an important way to affect change.

Many local councils now have Climate Action Plans or have declared a Climate Emergency. They now need local people to hold them to account and to support the transition to net zero. Where the plans are unambitious or need improving, it is essential that healthcare professionals provide a strong voice of opposition.

“A group of us got together and met with the Newcastle central MP Chi Onwurah”, Heather says. “And we've also met with people from the council and talked about the particular problems in Newcastle and how it's quite difficult for people to, even if they want to do the right thing by walking and cycling. We haven't got the infrastructure in Newcastle to be able to do that safel, so we've had some really good conversations with the council about trying to encourage them to expand their school streets policy of kind of closing streets around schools around drop off and pickup time.”

A final thought…

Heather believes that taking action is the most important thing. “We mustn't give up hope”, she says, “it would be easy to just say ‘this is all too late’, ‘there is nothing we can do about it’. But my hope is that we can all remain active, that we can enthuse and motivate individuals to keep acting. The health service is the biggest employer in the UK, and big organisations need to be leading the way. We can help push for change."

So what are you going to do?