Patricia Butterfield
Patricia Butterfield

Nurses worldwide should become more involved in actions aimed at reducing the health effects of climate change, according to an analysis published recently in The BMJ, a prestigious medical publication formerly called the British Medical Journal.

The paper’s lead author is Patricia Butterfield, professor emeritus at the Washington State University Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine and former Dean of the WSU College of Nursing. Her co-authors are Jeanne Leffers, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts College of Nursing and Health Sciences, and Maribal Diaz Vasquez, professor in the nursing school of the Universidad Catolica Santo Toribio de Mogrovejo in Chiclayo, Peru.

Nurses have three strengths that make them ideal ambassadors for climate action, the authors say: 1) nurses comprise more than 60% of healthcare professionals worldwide; 2) polls in the U.S. and elsewhere show nursing nearly always ranks as the most-trusted profession; and 3) many nurses work with communities most affected by floods, heatwaves, and other disasters due to climate change.

“The health of people affected by climate change is central to nursing,” Butterfield said in an interview. “We’d like to see climate action considered for what it is, part of nurse’s work to protect and preserve health in the populations we serve.”

The analysis notes that climate change threatens human health, but despite overwhelming evidence, the global response to climate change has lacked coordination. Because of their expertise, professionals such as nurses have stepped forward to summarize scientific evidence addressing health risks to current and future generations. Increasingly nurses are leading efforts aimed at greening hospital systems and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. When climate-related disasters occur, nurses have stepped up to serve, even when the work is dangerous and exhausting.

The analysis details nursing’s longstanding involvement in environmental health, starting with Florence Nightingale, who recognized the role of air quality in the treatment of hospital patients. It offers five recommendations for the future:

  • Put more nurses into leadership roles in healthcare organizations where they can direct climate action.
  • Provide mentoring and training so that practicing nurses have the tools necessary to turn good ideas into reality.
  • Encourage activism and advocacy among nurses; “Nursing should not be shy about using its voice for change,” the paper says.
  • Make sure nursing voices from developing nations are amplified, so that global perspectives are represented in policies going forward.
  • Frame climate action as a tool for achieving health equity and justice, because nurses “have a legacy of protecting human dignity.”

The Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, an education, research and advocacy organization, “strongly supports this nursing call to action,” said Executive Director Katie Huffling. “Right now, we are at a crossroads that will determine the health of our planet and the health of future generations. Nurses are perfectly primed to help lead global climate action and this analysis lays an excellent groundwork for how we can harness the energy of the over 25 million nurses worldwide.”

Butterfield presented an overview of the paper at the virtual World Innovation Summit for Health, part of the Qatar Foundation, on June 22.

Read the The BMJ’s Future of Nursing Report: https://www.bmj.com/thefutureofnursing

Read “Nursing’s pivotal role in global climate action”: https://www.bmj.com/content/bmj/373/bmj.n1049.full.pdf