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Using climate information for health decision-making

By Neethi Rao
on February 24, 2020

Climate change is among the key themes for the upcoming Sixth Global Symposium on Health Systems Research, to be held in Dubai later this year. Health professionals (such as myself) have clearly recognized the huge opportunities and challenges that climate change has brought. But as I journey back after attending the International Conference on Climate Services organized in Pune, India this year, I realize we are still a long way off from actively using climate science to support health decision-making.

There have been a lot of discussions within the climate community on co-production of climate services with the users (health practitioners), but much homework needs to be done before both communities embark on any meaningful co-production. The first imperative is to have a realistic understanding of available information climate change and its implications to be able to situate the health system response to it more effectively. Health professionals need to clearly communicate their needs to the climate community, to enable the creation of a solution space for health that will then allow the building of quality data and tools that are accessible and practical. Climate scientists for their part, need to better explain the implications and underlying assumptions of current climate research and evidence to avoid both under-reliance and over-reliance on climate models or projections.

We can begin to break this down into specific questions on the kinds of information and services on climate change that are likely to be most useful for health policy-making. To what degree are global projections of changes in transmission patterns of specific vectors or pathogens useful for policy or planning? What are the priorities and scenarios where various kinds of climate services may be applied within health systems? What are the timescales of climate information that are most useful for the healthcare decisions and planning at global, national and sub-national levels? I make a beginning in proposing some answers in the table below, but in all likelihood, this will be an ongoing process of multisectoral dialogue and consultation.

Countries also need to make an effort to make available systematic, long-term health data to climate scientists. Health databases that combine epidemiological data with their demographic and socio-economic correlates are crucial both for their own sake as well as for climate science to become practical and relevant for everyday decision-making.  Situated in India with its complex, mixed health system I’m especially mindful of the challenges associated with finding high-quality data on health. Regardless, countries of the global south will further exacerbate their health system vulnerabilities without a systematic investment in data and information.

Having said that, it’s also important to note that simply making data available is not adequate. We need boundary spanners in the form of individuals and organizations with cross-disciplinary expertise to help sectoral practitioners make sense of the available data and extract mutually beneficial meaning out of it. There are also opportunities for joint action and advocacy that climate and health researchers can undertake together on priority-setting for climate resilience, natural resource management, intersectoral action and so on.

Beyond data and empirical evidence however, real-world decision-making involves making subjective value-judgements as well as negotiating political imperatives. I call upon ministries of health and international development partners to convene nuanced discussions among a wide range of stakeholders, to ensure that the path to climate resilience is contextually appropriate and incorporates principles of equity and justice.

About Neethi Rao

Neethi Rao is a health systems researcher and policy analyst who has worked on intersectoral action for health and evidence-informed policymaking. She is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the Azim Premji University in Bangalore, focused on studying the health policy intersections of climate change in India.
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