Hospitals feel the heat too from extreme weather and its health impacts

As southeastern Australia swelters through another heatwave, how well equipped are our hospitals to cope with severe weather events?

Hospitals lie at the heart of our ability to manage the significant potential health impacts of extreme weather events. Many people would be surprised to hear that the vast majority of our hospitals have not been designed with these risks in mind. And they have not been adapted to ensure they can maintain healthcare services during such events.

The recent thunderstorm asthma outbreak in Melbourne, which was linked to eight deaths and put 8,500 people in hospital, is a vivid example of the health impacts of extreme weather. Such events can be life-threatening, especially for the aged, obese and critically ill.

Individually, health services workers do a remarkable job in coping with such events. However, the buildings they work in and the infrastructure that supports them often constrain their ability to respond.

Stories of power outages and of sick people waiting hours for beds and patients dying because hospitals were overstretched do not inspire confidence in the health system as Australia faces the prospect of more frequent extreme weather events such as heatwaves, floods and storms.

A map of temperatures like this one for Wednesday, January 11, spells trouble for health services across Australia. Bureau of Meteorology

During the 2014 heatwave in South Australia, when Adelaide became the hottest place on the planet, heart attack rates increased by more than 300%. Other emerging extreme weather health risks include asthma from bush fires, increasing waterborne and vector diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and typhoid, dehydration and heat exhaustion, and physical injury from flying debris and floods.

There are many reports of hospital buildings and infrastructure failing during extreme weather events in Australia. For example, power outages have affected numerous hospitals and back-up systems reportedly failed during the 2004 heatwaves that swept Australia.

During the 2005 Sydney heatwaves, hospitals were swamped. Many people were simply seeking respite in air-conditioned reception areas.

In 2006, Cyclone Larry closed much of Innisfail Hospital. Staff required medical support from Townsville and Cairns hospitals. Herberton Hospital was without power until a generator was provided. Leaking roofs resulted in emergency evacuations.

In 2009, one-in-100-year storms left more than 3,000 NSW residents stranded by floods, many of them old and seriously at risk. Floodwaters isolated Coffs Harbour, Dorrigo and Bellingen hospitals. People needing urgent medical treatment had to be sent up to 80 kilometres away.

Most recently, after super-cell thunderstorms blacked out South Australia, back-up generators failed at an Adelaide hospital. Seventeen patients had to be transferred from Flinders Medical Centre to Flinders Private Hospital.

Originally published by The Conversation, continue reading Here.