The Northern Territory (NT) could lose up to a third of its doctors as they look to escape the dangerous effects of climate change, according to new analysis from The Australian National University (ANU).
Researchers found that 19 per cent of doctors say they are likely to leave the NT and 14.9 per cent were considering leaving as a result of climate warming, and 85 per cent believe that climate change is already impacting the health of patients in the area.
Having lived through many hot summers in the NT, Alice Springs-based doctor, Simon Quilty, said climate change was already having deadly consequences to human health.
"Climate change could decimate our rural health workforce," Dr Quilty, from ANU, said.
"Climate change is the biggest threat to health; not only does heat itself kill, but it worsens existing healthcare inequity in places most vulnerable to extreme heat.
"The NT already has the greatest health inequity of any state of Australia, and climate change is rapidly compromising the few gains that have been made.
"Climate migration in Northern Australia is well under way and our study demonstrates that it is those with the resources to move and an understanding of the potential impacts who are already heading out."
The report, which surveyed 362 Northern Territory doctors, found climate impacts such as extreme heat could lead to health workforce shortages in rural and remote communities, which already struggle to attract and keep doctors.
"Australia should adopt a comprehensive National Plan for Health and Climate Change, and that must include ensuring we have the workforce for a hotter, more extreme future.
"We must address the need to bolster the workforce for remote and Indigenous communities who are at particular risk."
In December 2019 the NT's maximum temperature was 4⁰ Celsius above the long-term average, and in 2019 the NT's third largest town, Katherine, recorded 54 days above 40⁰ Celsius; a level of extreme heat associated with significantly increased illness and death.
"Climate change is a health emergency. We have no time to lose in urgently taking steps to protect Australians, in particular Territorians, and prepare our health sector and communities for worsening extremes," Dr Quilty said.
"Health care workers overwhelmingly believe that climate change is real and is impacting human health - local policies and decisions can adversely impact the entire workforce. The NT Government risks further destabilising its workforce if it is not a leader in the fight against climate change."
The commentary is published in The Lancet Planetary Health.