Dr. Maura Brown brings BC Cancer together for a healthier planet.
In the summer of 2017, Dr. Maura Brown found herself stranded on Highway 3. The east-west corridor connecting her family in the southeast to her home in Vancouver was closed in two places due to raging wildfires that displaced thousands of British Columbians. Dr. Brown made it home safely, but the experience was harrowing.
“I grew up in a family where conversations about global warming, acid rain and ozone holes regularly happened at the dinner table. I’ve always been environmentally conscious and made an effort to minimize my impact — I’ve biked to work and been mostly vegetarian for years. But that experience on Highway 3 made it clear to me that I needed to do more.”
Dr. Brown is a staff radiologist at BC Cancer in Vancouver. She is also a Clinical Assistant Professor at the UBC Department of Radiology, Faculty of Medicine, and is the CT Medical Practice Lead for Lower Mainland Medical Imaging. Already a leader in health care, she joined the Green+Leaders program in 2020 to further her leadership in climate action and sustainability. Becoming more and more aware of the impacts of climate change on our health, she talked to people with deep experience in climate action. In the process, she discovered “low carbon, sustainable health care solutions” would be the most impactful area for her to make a difference.
Health care is responsible for 4.6% of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions, which gives health-care workers the dual responsibility of reducing emissions from the sector and caring for people impacted by the climate crisis.
In conversations with BC Cancer colleagues, Dr. Brown discovered that many others shared her concerns about the interlocking climate and health crises. Along with radiation oncologist Dr. Shilo Lefresne and medical oncologist Dr. Caroline Mariano, Dr. Brown co-founded the BC Cancer Planetary Health Unit (BCCPHU), which debuted on April 7, 2022 — World Health Day and, coincidentally, Dr. Brown’s birthday (It was “the best present ever!” she says).
The BCCPHU is an interdisciplinary group that works to reduce the environmental impact of health care and address the impacts of climate change on health. The group has initiated a variety of projects, including eliminating the routine use of exam-table paper in outpatient clinics, working with diagnostic imaging to lower the energy use of CT scanners (stay tuned for a future story about this!), and collaborating with the Energy and Environmental Sustainability team (EES) to improve recycling and clinical waste management.
Building on their early successes, the BCCPHU will launch the Sustainability in Quality Improvement (SusQI) initiative in Jan 2023. SusQI will grant funding for up to three projects per quarter to empower others to try their ideas for improving the sustainability of health-care operations.
In Dr. Brown’s eyes, the BCCPHU’s unique strength is the interdisciplinary collaboration between senior leadership and clinicians with a range of expertise. Dr. Brown and BC Cancer senior executive director of operations, Kevin Hare, co-chair the BCCPHU, while the steering committee is composed of site leads, as well as provincial discipline leaders in radiation technology, chemotherapy nursing, library, pharmacy and lab. Clinicians bring their experience with patients, research, and administering care, while senior leadership can “put the steps in motion.”
Leading this important and innovative initiative is a lot of work, but it’s deeply rewarding and even healing for Dr. Brown: “I’m also a mum and I worry about the future for young people. I find that each win we have — whether it’s reducing waste, limiting emissions or inspiring someone to make a change through a personal conversation — reduces my own climate anxiety.”
As the co-chair of the BCCPHU, Dr. Brown is leading the way, but she also recognizes that planetary health requires everyone’s efforts. Dr. Brown believes that “solving our climate crisis is going to need many, many people to be engaged” and that there are many ways to positively contribute to climate solutions, from individual choices to community and political activism to sustainable change at work.
If we can inspire the majority of people to see how simple changes will improve their health, benefit their families and communities, we may start to see the system change that will lead to a cleaner, greener and more just world for all.”