Extreme weather: Consequences for health, healthcare professionals and healthcare sectors

Europe is facing another year with the hottest temperatures on record – the previous record in 2020 saw a significant increase, a full 1.9 degrees above the 1981-2010 average. Whilst 1.9 degrees may not feel like much to you if you go outside, on a global scale it is a dangerous trend that is increasing the prevalence of extreme weather events.  

In fact, the 5 warmest years in Europe have all occurred after 2014 and trends aren’t reversing. We have written about the topic of climate change before, but as summer approaches and many people will be experiencing temperatures higher than they are used too we thought we would talk about the healthcare consequences of increasing temperatures, not only for patients, but also for healthcare professionals too

(anyone who's worked on the wards in the middle of a heatwave relying on a couple of barely-functioning fans raise your hand 🙋🏻‍♀️)



Health Consequences

Rising temperatures can have severe impacts on health, both directly and indirectly. Heat-related illnesses such as heatstroke and dehydration become more common, particularly among vulnerable populations like the elderly, children, and those with pre-existing health conditions. According to Public Health England, during the summer of 2020, it was estimated that there were over 2,500 excess deaths in England alone due to heatwaves. This illustrates the immediate impact high temperatures can have on mortality rates in the UK (Public Health England, 2021).

Additionally, higher temperatures can exacerbate chronic conditions such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. The British Heart Foundation has highlighted that heat can put extra strain on the heart and circulatory system, particularly affecting those with existing heart conditions (British Heart Foundation, 2021). Similarly, respiratory conditions like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can worsen during heatwaves due to increased air pollution and pollen levels.

Higher temperatures also facilitate the spread of vector-borne diseases. Mosquitoes, for example, thrive in warmer climates, increasing the risk of diseases like West Nile Virus and potentially even malaria returning to the UK. A study by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine suggests that climate change could expand the range of mosquitoes capable of transmitting these diseases in the UK (LSHTM, 2022)

There's also an increase in waterborne diseases as higher temperatures growth of harmful bacteria in water sources. The Environment Agency has reported that warmer temperatures can lead to the proliferation of pathogens such as Vibrio bacteria in coastal and inland waters, posing a risk to public health (University of Exeter, Science daily, 2021). This is particularly a concern for recreational waters and drinking water supplies.


Impact on Healthcare Professionals

Healthcare professionals are on the front lines of combating heat-related health issues, but they also face increased challenges due to higher temperatures. Prolonged exposure to heat can lead to fatigue, reduced cognitive function, and impaired manual dexterity, all of which can affect performance. A recent study found that high temperatures is likelt to impair cognitive performance and decision-making abilities, which can have serious implications for patient care (Yin et al., 2024)

Moreover, hospitals and care facilities can lack sufficient air conditioning and cooling systems, making it difficult for healthcare workers to provide care in a comfortable environment. This issue is exacerbated in older buildings that may not be equipped to handle modern cooling solutions. According to a report by the Royal College of Nursing, many NHS facilities are not adequately prepared for heatwaves, with only 59% of nurses stating their workplace has a heatwave plan in place. 

The physical strain of working in high temperatures can lead to higher stress levels and burnout among healthcare professionals. The British Medical Association has highlighted that extreme heat contributes to increased rates of burnout and mental health issues among doctors and nurses, further exacerbating staffing shortages (British Medical Association, 2019). Burnout not only affects the health of healthcare workers but also impacts patient care quality and staff retention rates.

Furthermore, the increased incidence of heat-related illnesses means that healthcare professionals are dealing with higher patient loads during heatwaves, which can overwhelm emergency departments and intensive care units. This added pressure can lead to reduced efficiency and increased mistakes, potentially resulting in poorer patient outcomes.

By recognising the specific challenges faced by healthcare professionals during periods of extreme heat, we can advocate for better working conditions, more robust cooling infrastructure, and comprehensive heatwave preparedness plans to support those on the front lines.



Strain on Healthcare Systems

The healthcare system itself faces tremendous strain during periods of extreme heat. Emergency departments often see spikes in patient numbers during heatwaves, overwhelming facilities that may already be operating at or near capacity. For instance, during the 2019 European heatwave, hospitals across the continent, including in the UK, reported significant increases in admissions for heat-related illnesses (Office for national statistics, 2022)

Increased demand for cooling solutions, such as air conditioning in hospitals, puts additional stress on energy resources and budgets. The NHS Confederation has emphasized that the financial burden of maintaining adequate temperature control in healthcare facilities could divert resources from other critical areas (NHS Conferderation, 2021). 

Additionally, heatwaves can disrupt the supply chain for essential medical supplies and pharmaceuticals, many of which need to be stored at controlled temperatures. This can lead to shortages and increased costs for the healthcare system. According to recent study in the journal nature, disruptions in the supply chain during extreme heat events can have cascading effects on patient care and operational efficiency (Nature, 2024). 

Moreover, the physical infrastructure of healthcare facilities may also suffer due to extreme heat. Buildings not designed to withstand high temperatures may experience increased wear and tear, leading to higher maintenance costs. The BMJ reports that many older NHS buildings are ill-equipped to handle prolonged periods of extreme heat, necessitating urgent upgrades to cooling systems to ensure safe environments for both patients and staff (BMJ, 2022). 

Heatwaves can also exacerbate existing healthcare disparities. Lower-income communities, which may already face barriers to healthcare access, are often more adversely affected by extreme heat. These populations may lack the resources to adequately cool their homes, leading to heightened health risks and increased reliance on already strained healthcare services.



As Europe continues to experience record-breaking temperatures, the health and well-being of its population, and the capacity of its healthcare systems, come under increasing threat. Urgent action is needed to mitigate these impacts. This includes investing in more robust cooling infrastructure, enhancing emergency preparedness, and developing policies to address the broader implications of climate change on health.

By understanding and addressing these challenges now, we can better prepare for a warmer future and protect the health of our communities.