The Northern Territory could lose up to a third of its doctors as they look to escape the effects of climate change, according to new study 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.

Eighty-five per cent believe that climate change is already having a negative impact on the health of patients in the area.

Alice Springs-based doctor and ANU researcher, Simon Quilty, said climate change has deadly consequences for human health.

“Climate change could decimate our rural health workforce… 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,” he said.

“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.”

Dr Quilty told the National Indigenous Times “the most vulnerable people in Australia” will be left behind by climate migration.

“Climate migration is happening and unlike the popular view of vulnerable people leaving, it’s the people who have the resources to leave who are leaving and they are leaving the most vulnerable people in Australia behind,” he said.

“This is not just in the medical profession but in other professions as well.

“Doctors overwhelmingly understand the very significant risks of climate change, 96 per cent understand it is a real phenomenon.”

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.

Dr Quilty told the National Indigenous Times that the decision to leave, for those who can, “comes down to a very personal point”.

“For Indigenous people they won’t leave because it’s their ancestral land. For non-Indigenous people who have the resources and family connections down south it’s a different story,” he said.

“I have two children. The thought of raising them where it is too hot for them to play outside for three or four months a year, six months in a place like Katherine – and that’s extending, bringing up children it’s possible the water supply dries up, is daunting.

“The Federal authorities need to be aware that this is part of a pattern of behaviour that will worsen with time and leaves the most vulnerable people behind.”

Dr Quilty said he hoped people who felt passionately about the rights and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and who felt passionately about climate change would work together.

“There are solutions but that requires strong leadership,” he said.

In a statement, Dr Quilty called for Australian governments to adopt “a comprehensive National Plan for Health and Climate Change” 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,” he said.

In December 2019 the NT’s maximum temperature was four degrees Celsius above the long-term average, and in 2019 the NT’s third largest town, Katherine, recorded 54 days above 40 degrees Celsius; a level of extreme heat associated with significantly increased illness and death.

“The NT Government risks further destabilising its workforce if it is not a leader in the fight against climate change,” Dr Quilty said.

“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.”

By Giovanni Torre