A doctor for change

Hayden Burch (BSc 2015, MPH/MD 2020) is a resident doctor at Austin Health and Victorian Chair of Doctors for the Environment Australia Sustainable Healthcare Group.

Healthcare sustainability and looking at how to provide healthcare through an environmental lens is a passion for Dr Hayden Burch.

As an advocate with Doctors for the Environment Australia and Honorary Member of the University of Melbourne Department of Critical Care Sustainability and Planetary Health Action Network, Dr Burch is part of a growing body of medical students, clinicians and researchers championing the concept that a healthy planet equals healthier people.

“Environment as a determinant of human health is important but how we’ve developed medical practices and how we consume resources in medicine is currently detached from this relationship,” says Dr Burch.

“Low carbon environmental healthcare aligns with high quality patient healthcare in the sense that the right patient gets the right treatment at the right time for the right indications.”

Dr Burch points to high energy use in Australian public hospitals and low value practices, such as unnecessary testing that doesn’t change outcomes for patients, as areas for attention.

During his MD, Dr Burch researched renewable energy use in Australian public hospitals and found hospitals were less than 2.3 per cent renewable in their energy choices. He found that due to their 24/7 operation and size, public hospitals alone consume energy equivalent to around 630,000 average Australian four-person homes.

“We need to raise awareness amongst healthcare workers that clinical care extends beyond the prescriptions and scalpels to the way we power our buildings. High polluting healthcare does not align with our mission of improving health or to ‘do no harm’. We have a huge opportunity if we electrify our buildings – that would be a good start,” says Dr Burch.

Dr Burch chose a medical career after growing up in an environment where service and community were family values.

“I spent a lot of time involved in surf lifesaving and I’ve always derived a lot of my meaning and purpose from helping the community,” he says.

Dr Burch initially completed a Bachelor of Science and then applied for medicine and combined the MD with a Master of Public Health (MPH). He graduated in 2020 and began an internship at the Northern Hospital before joining Austin Health. In 2023, Dr Burch begins a position as a Critical Care HMO. The preparatory year will expose him to anaesthetics, intensive care and emergency medicine and he is currently interested in specialising in anaesthetics.

“I enjoy quick thinking, team-based problem solving and dynamic situations and anaesthetics offers variety. I like that part of my clinical work is targeted to the individual patient in front of me and I balance that with research and volunteer work on higher-level systems issues that also influence the care of critically unwell individuals,” he says.

Dr Burch continues his role with Doctors for the Environment Australia and the University of Melbourne Department of Critical Care Sustainability and Planetary Health Action Network.

“Underpinning our accreditation in qualifying as a doctor is an attribute that we as students learn to practise medicine in an environmentally sustainable way. As doctors, already seeing patients present with climate-impacted diseases due to heat, flood events and storms, we are not being sufficiently educated on assessing and managing climate-related disease or how the way in which we practise medicine impacts on tomorrow’s world,” he says.

Through volunteer work begun as a medical student, Dr Burch and colleagues have developed a climate change organ system mapping resource to support integration of clinically focused planetary health teaching into the MD. The group will publish in the Medical Journal of Australia in November 2022.

“We are advocating for Melbourne Medical School to integrate climate change and sustainable healthcare content into new Discovery modules,” says Dr Burch.

“The aim is to train doctors to be competent and confident in understanding how climate factors impact their patients and to practise medicine in a way that benefits patients now and in the future.”