Viewing Healthcare from an Environmental Perspective


By Renee Chenfei Bai
MSc OT (c)


I still remember the first time I learned about the three Rs in elementary school. Reduce, reuse, recycle, I echoed to my parents excitedly. At that moment, my idea of saving the planet was as simple as placing my craft scrap paper in the blue recycling bin. I felt confident I could make a difference. Years later, I found myself doing undergraduate research in a plant biology lab. I studied the native plants of Alberta by investigating seeds collected in the 1960s. I realized just how much of our ecosystem had changed since then. My university buildings stood over areas where the seeds were once collected, with once common plants listed as endangered. The certainty I felt from my elementary school days transformed into a feeling of loss. What can I do? How can I help? I felt as if I had lost my once clear role in environmental stewardship. A few weeks ago, I started my Master of Science in Occupational Therapy. Between moving to London and the stresses of starting a graduate program, finding my role in environmental sustainability had fallen to the back of my mind. That is until I was introduced to the overlap of environmental sustainability and healthcare by a brilliant guest lecturer.

The push for recognizing the importance of environmental sustainability in healthcare has increasingly gained popularity. In 2017, the World Health Organization publicly recognized the environment as an essential contributor to enabling economic development by providing natural resources and contributing to social and societal well-being (WHO Regional Office for Europe, 2017). In other words, keeping the environment healthy promotes the health of our people too. However, the problem we face is that scientists have found that more than half of the world’s population resides in countries experiencing environmental depletion and poverty (Wackernagel et al., 2021).

Poverty is challenging to overcome when a country does not have the environmental resources for its economic development (Wackernagel et al., 2021; WHO Regional Office for Europe, 2017). Indeed, poverty harms a person’s health status. We can see this exemplified in the USA, a place close to home and similar in culture to Canada. It has been reported that the air pollution in lower-income neighbourhoods is higher and residents in these areas are at increased risk of developing environmentally related illnesses, one of which being asthma (Katz, 2012). As an effect of lowered health status, as one could imagine, having worse health limits your participation in activities that are meaningful to your life. For example, if you were a runner, developing asthma would probably be a barrier to running. Instead, you may quit doing this activity altogether.

Occupational therapy is all about promoting health and well-being by encouraging people to participate in activities that they find meaningful! As an occupational therapy student, this idea troubled me. So once again, the same questions came to mind: What can I do? How can I help? Personally, I can collaborate with clients to find hobbies or activities that promote environmental sustainability. Further, as future healthcare professionals, it is our responsibility to understand how the state of the environment can influence your client or patient’s health problems and treatment needs. We should and perhaps need to consider these factors to provide the best and most effective care.

However,  reflecting on what we can do is an important start to advocating for climate change mitigation and health promotion. Perhaps you might find doing your reflective thinking on these questions to be helpful, and I encourage you to consider how it may be relevant to you. More importantly, we need to recognize that these ideas (advocating for climate change mitigation and environmental stewardship) are not exclusive to healthcare professionals, scientists, or any particular group. It is the collective responsibility of everyone you and I are in it together!



My endless thanks to Dr. Jana Vamosi, for being my wonderful undergraduate mentor and inspiring my journey into conservation science and advocacy. For without you, I surely would not have had the confidence to pursue my interests!





Katz, C. (2012). People in poor neighborhoods breathe more hazardous particles. Scientific American. Retrieved October 31, 2021, from

Wackernagel, M., Hanscom, L., Jayasinghe, P., Lin, D., Murthy, A., Neill, E., & Raven, P. (2021). The importance of resource security for poverty eradication. Nature Sustainability, 4(8), 731-738.

World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe. (2017). Environmentally Sustainable Health Systems: A strategic document. World Health Organization. Retrieved October 31, 2021, from



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