The United Nations (UN) declared access to clean and healthy environments a universal human right in July 2022. This historic decision was voted in favour by 161 countries. But what exactly does this mean? And how does this apply to health care and rehabilitation?
Healthcare workers are in the industry to provide safe and ethical practices that help improve aspects of patients quality of life. In general terms, we are held to a standard to treat everyone with justice, fairness, and equity at the forefront. Justice serves as a way to respect a patient’s autonomy, independence, and livelihood. In healthcare, we tend to use social justice as our guidance towards optimal health and wellness (1) to ensure the well-being of our patients. We should not discriminate on sex, race, gender, socioeconomic status. As soon as a patient walks into the doors of our clinics, we are to treat everyone with equity. We are trained to understand that vulnerable populations often have limited access to care, which often leads to poorer health outcomes (1).
Currently, with the global environmental changes that are occurring, already vulnerable populations are becoming even more susceptible to illness, and even those in better positions, will not be able to escape the impacts of environmental degradation. In the world of healthcare, educators should begin to implement environmental sustainability and its inseparable links to social and environmental justice into curricula and create case-based scenarios for which healthcare teams have to come together and work through to develop equally ‘wicked, awesome solutions’ (2,3). Not only will we have to deal with more water and air-borne diseases, but we will also need to adapt our current practice to become more environmentally sustainable to ensure the care and quality of the earth as well (4, 5).
Erin Keough, CTRS
M.Sc.Kin, M.Sc.A.PT, Justice Centered Rehab
Erin Keough is a disabled Inuk from Newfoundland. Her philosophy is that we are more than the words used to identify us. She takes a person-partnered approach to care and advocates for her clients’ needs. She is an executive member of Justice Centered Rehab, a group dedicated to highlighting and improving injustice and inequities in healthcare.
The UN is working towards creating policies and commitments to environmental action. This work is grounded on the statement that “environmental damage has negative implications, both direct and indirect, for the effective enjoyment of all human rights” (5). The UN Secretary-General stated that while this mandate is a good step in the right direction, it is only the beginning of a long-term plan to help decrease pollution, climate change, and loss of biodiversity.
Those 3 factors will impact our abilities to provide healthcare. So in order for us to be able to heal the people on our earth, we need to preserve the earth’s integrity. If we view this from a philosophical perspective, both the environmental and our own bodies are the same. From a purely biological and geological perspective, we have one earth, the only place – currently – where humans can thrive, grow, and develop. We must respect and take care of the earth to ensure that we are able to live our lives with enjoyment. Similarly, we have one body that we need to take care of. If we neglect our own bodies, we will be limited in our functional abilities to enjoy the clean and healthy environments that the UN just declared a human right.
As healthcare professionals, we are taught how to evaluate, analyze, and adapt both intrinsic and extrinsic environmental factors to ensure proper human functioning, activity and participation. While we usually determine these factors for an individual within themselves and their homes, it is now time to broaden our perspectives. Physiotherapists have an in-depth understanding of how space and body can impact overall quality of life and the UN declaring clean and healthy environments a human right underscores the need for attention to this even more. It thus places an unquestionable responsibility on healthcare professionals that is already entirely in-line with our work but simultaneously calls us to expand our understanding of the links between physical health and the environment. It is time for us to take care of our bodies and the earth alike, for ourselves as much as for everyone else.
The United Nations original post about its declaration can be found here: https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/07/1123482
Header image by Lindsey Garrett on Pexels
- Smith, M.A. (2019). The promotion of social justice in healthcare. Nursing Made Easy, 17(2), 26-32. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.NME.0000553091.78584.a9
- Schwerdtle, P.N., Horton, G., Kent, F., Walker, L., & McLean, M. (2020). Education for sustainable healthcare: A transdisciplinary approach to transversal environmental threats. Medical Teacher, 42(10),1102-1106. https://doi.org/10.1080/0142159X.2020.1795101
- Webb, J. (2022). From wicked problems to wicked, awesome, solutions: Introducing compound solutions. Community of Practice Ecosystem Approach – Canada. https://copeh-canada.org/en/about-us/blog/7-a-propos/392-compound-solutions.html
- McKimm,J., & McLean, (2020). Rethinking health professions’ education leadership: Developing ‘eco-ethical’ leaders for a more sustainable world and future. Med Teach, 42(8), 855-860. https://doi.org/10.1080/0142159X.2020.1748877
- United Nations. (2022). Retrieved from https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/07/1123482