Dr Hannah Short on being a plant-based GP
Dr Hannah Short March 12, 2019
As the world begins to acknowledge a whole-food plant-based diet as beneficial for individual and planetary health, the demand for plant-based health care practitioners is on the rise. Here in the UK, over the last two years, an increasing number of doctors have trained in Lifestyle Medicine, and we have seen the formation of Plant-Based Health Professionals UK(PBHP UK): “a non-profit organisation dedicated to the promotion of plant-based nutrition and other lifestyle interventions for optimal health and well-being”.
I am an NHS GP, a specialist in female hormonal health, and a passionate advocate of Lifestyle Medicine. In March 2018, I was privileged to speak on the role of plant-based nutrition in post-reproductive health at the inaugural PBHP UK conference. However, whilst I do consider myself a “plant-based doctor”, I choose to identify, first and foremost, as a vegan one. To some this is a controversial stance; to me, it makes sense and aligns perfectly with the underlying principles of medical ethics: Autonomy (of thought, intention and action), Justice (fairness and equality), Beneficence (do good) and Non-maleficence (do no harm).
As doctors, our duty of care applies not only to the individual patient in front of us but also to wider society. While medical professionals may quibble over whether an absolute whole-food plant-based diet is optimal for human health, or whether 90% will suffice, there can be no doubt that a diet devoid of animal products reigns supreme in other aspects. Some will argue I am on shaky ground here; after all, our ethical persuasion should stay out our consultation room. But hear me out.
A vegan lifestyle is not only kinder to the other sentient beings with which we share this planet, it is also more sustainable for the earth. Climate change is already happening and affects both the social and environmental determinants of health – clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food and shelter. The poorest and most vulnerable communities are disproportionately affected.
According to The World Health Organisation (WHO), between 2030 and 2050 climate change is predicted to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, diarrhoea, malaria and heat stress. This is, and should be, a concern for all those working in healthcare.
The vast majority of antibiotics are given to farm animals, kept in crowded, appalling conditions, to reduce the incidence of otherwise inevitable disease. This is all driving the crisis of antibiotic resistance; people are dying as we are no longer able to adequately treat certain infections. I have seen this myself on the wards and in my GP surgery. Furthermore, factory farming discriminates against low-income communities and minority groups. People living close by breathe more polluted air and drink more polluted water; they are sicker overall. The purchase of cheap meat fuels this. As a doctor, I feel I have a duty and a responsibility to share this information.
Front-line abattoir workers undertake such dangerous and dehumanising work it’s hard for most of us to comprehend. Most are on minimum-wage, and it is believed a significant minority are trafficked foreign nationals brought in by criminal gangs to fuel gaps in the market. A study commissioned by the Health and Safety Executive found that, over six years, 800 UK abattoir workers suffered serious injuries, 78 required amputations and 4 died whilst at work. Slaughterhouse work has been linked to a variety of disorders including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), is associated with increased crime, including higher rates of violent sexual offences, and drug and alcohol abuse.
I believe that most people do care about animals; consequently, the cognitive dissonance associated with eating meat is damaging on a much deeper level. To constantly deny our innate compassion is not without consequence to our psyche. US neurologist, and public-health physician, Dr Aysha Akhtar speaks widely on this; her message is clear: treating animals better is critical to human welfare.
If we wish to change the public perception of veganism (whether “do-gooder tree-hugger” or “militant extremist”), we need to stand tall, without shame and demonstrate that compassion and best-evidence can go hand in hand. This is not about preaching to our patients but involves taking ownership of our core values and applying them to our duties as a doctor. Indeed, we are privileged to be in the position to do so.
Dr Hannah Short
Hannah is an NHS GP, an accredited specialist in female hormonal health, and medical writer. She is passionate about lifestyle medicine and the benefits of a whole food plant-based diet. She became vegan for ethical and environmental reasons in 2016.