With the dual crisis of climate and health intensifying every single day, it is critical for medical leadership to step up and play a catalytic role. Dr Emma Iovoli, Life Sciences Consultant – Climate and Health, recommends ways in which medical leaders can contribute and drive co-benefits for climate and health within their organisations.

The climate and health crisis is already bearing down on us and the urgency for action is clearer than ever. As the UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently stated, “our world needs climate action on all fronts – everything, everywhere, all at once.” Private sector organisations around the world are being urged to step up to this challenge and the healthcare sector, including the pharmaceutical industry, is no exception. 

An unrealised opportunity for accelerated and integrated climate and health action

In a recent study of the top twenty pharmaceutical companies by revenue, nineteen companies reported current targets to reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHGs) through commitments to carbon neutrality, net zero, percentage emission reduction or a combination of the three. Achievement of these commitments is of critical interest to healthcare systems globally, given that pharmaceuticals contribute between 10 to 55% of their own GHG emissions.

The majority of disclosed environmental strategies within big pharmaceutical companies are climate actions with health benefits, led by corporate sustainability.  In contrast, health actions with climate benefits, led by core business functions (e.g. medical affairs, marketing, market access, public affairs, sales), are not yet fully realised.

In my recently published practical guide to medical affairs leadership in climate and health, I conclude that there is therefore a significant unrealised opportunity for accelerated and integrated climate and health action. Actions that would not only help companies and healthcare systems achieve their GHG targets but also respond to the unequally distributed health-related impacts of climate change globally, whilst realising business opportunities.

How can medical affairs leaders contribute during this moment of crisis?

Medical affairs leaders are physicians, clinician scientists and pharmacists that are uniquely positioned within the business to take health actions with climate benefits. They are the organisation’s main advocate for patient centricity, experts in real world evidence, trained on issues of digital healthcare delivery, front line educators of healthcare professionals and have a wide network of collaborative partnerships across the healthcare system. 

Medical affairs knowledge can be applied to the challenge of climate change in ways that transform patient care and realise business opportunity. There are three main areas in which medical affairs can contribute:

  • Evidence generation: Systematic evaluations of the carbon impact of a product across its entire lifecycle raises many issues that are directly relevant to commercialisation of the product. These issues include how promotional claims on carbon impact can be best presented to support healthcare professionals and patients in appropriate treatment decisions. In addition, medical affairs leaders are well placed to advise the business on how climate change is impacting/will impact therapeutic disease areas of interest in terms of burden, vulnerable populations and geographical spread.  Integrated climate and health data through collaborative research forums will inform strategic investments in research and development and market access as well as enhance the medicines value proposition. 
  • Collaboration to redesign low carbon patient pathways: Medical affairs leaders can represent pharmaceutical companies and work with other stakeholders collaboratively to redesign low carbon, climate resilient, patient care pathways. This can lead to accelerating existing innovations in digital health solutions that integrate climate and health data on accessible platforms. Bringing the patient voice and advocating for equitable access to healthcare in pathway redesign is one of the important roles medical affairs will contribute. 
  • Integrating climate and health into medical education: There is an opportunity to integrate climate and health into medical education directed to both healthcare professionals and to patients. Company sponsored disease awareness education, for example, could include content on how changes in health behaviour can also have a positive impact on the environment, and recommend actions that benefit both. Educating patients on their right to demand sustainable treatment alternatives where available and appropriate is likely to be a critical lever within the transition to net zero healthcare.   

An unprecedented opportunity to improve equitable health outcomes

While driving co-benefits for climate and health may seem complicated, initiatives like the Climate and Health Coalition are already working to mobilise and equip the private sector to accelerate the integrated transformation of our health and climate systems. In their 2022 guidance titled 'Driving Co-Benefits for Climate and Health: How the private sector can accelerate progress', the Coalition highlights some encouraging examples of integrated action on climate and health which deserve to be widely replicated, and details actions that leaders across industries can take to make change happen.

The window for leadership to step up to this challenge is narrowing as the “climate time-bomb is ticking”, but on the horizon is a huge opportunity to improve equitable health outcomes for patients and the planet, creating the right conditions for a sustainable business. 

About the Climate and Health Coalition: The Climate and Health Coalition is a multi-stakeholder initiative with a mission to mobilise and equip the private sector to play a key role in accelerating the transformation of our health and climate systems, towards outcomes that deliver benefits for both people and planet. he Coalition is facilitated by Forum for the Future and comprises Bristol Myers Squibb, Bupa, Haleon, Reckitt and Walgreens Boots Alliance. Find out more about the Coalition's work. 

About the author: Emma Iovoli, Life Sciences Consultant – Climate and Health, is a medical doctor and clinical academic with over a decade of experience within the pharmaceutical industry. She has worked as a doctor in the NHS in the UK, completed an MRC funded PhD in respiratory disease and has senior leadership experience in global and regional medical affairs, including most recently as the medical head of global health within a large pharmaceutical company. Get in touch with Emma at [email protected]