With the worst bushfires Australia has ever seen slowly being extinguished, and Queensland’s flash floods, our environment is affecting our health at unprecedented rates. From physical ailments to mental health concerns, GPs need to remain informed about potential risks and how to prevent aggravating existing conditions.
Whether you live in the city or in a rural town directly affected by the fires, there is a high-level of anxiety surrounding the environment and climate change. Particularly for GPs in rural areas, your role in the coming months and years is crucial to the wellbeing of your patients and your town. But how do we treat patients when the short and long term effects of the poor air quality have not been widely studied? Informing patients of what we know and what steps they can take to ensure they are protecting themselves and their family.
While many believe any form of mask is sufficient in preventing smoke inhalation, the particles produced during these bushfires are so small that they penetrate through any mask that is not a P2 mask. Typically used for construction, pharmacies are now stocking P2 masks for purchase. The issue with these masks, however, is that for them to be 100% effective, they need to be firmly secured around the mouth. In theory this seems simple, but with such tiny particles, it is difficult to ascertain whether the mask is secure enough.
While P2 masks are a great option to recommend to your patients, especially if they are asthmatics or prone to cardiac arrests, once the patient has left your clinic, they are again exposed to the poor air quality. Other options to recommend include buying an air purifier to purify the air inside their house, staying indoors with sufficient air conditioning/filtration, and using Ventolin and a spacer to ease breathing.
As a GP, it is also crucial that you go through your list of patients to ensure that any ‘at-risk’ patients are able to come into the clinic for review. This also allows for an open dialogue between patient and doctor, ensuring that the patient is aware of the risk of aggravation to their existing condition and how to prevent this.
While we are yet to grasp the long-term effects of smoke pollution, it is clear that mental health is at a low, particularly in rural areas where homes and businesses have been lost in the fires. While we see images of communities banding together to rebuild their town, each individual has experienced levels of trauma that need to be addressed and talked through. Although these communities need financial support, they also require a level of counselling, whether through speaking to a psychologist online or in-person, or through seeing their GP.
For many, discussing forms of trauma, especially ones that may not seem as severe, is still taboo. As a GP, you hold the ability to talk through these issues with your patients in a non-threatening way. Whether they have lost their house, or are just processing the effects of climate change, talking these issues through is invaluable to your patients.
But, do not forget yourself! Even though you are a doctor, you have been affected as much, if not more than your patients. Not only have you been exposed to the same air pollution, the same media images, and the same losses of property, but you have been exposed to the trauma experienced by all of your patients. The best way to ensure that you can properly help your patients, is to first help yourself and your family. Keep the other doctors in your practice accountable as well, so that together, you can ensure the physical and mental safety of your local community.
What else can you and your clinic do to help your community through this time?
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