Above: Pharmacist Hannah O’Malley with plant based athlete and physiotherapist, Brad Dixon of Tauranga, at this year’s Lifestyle Medicine Conference in Auckland.

Plant-based education could be delivered with your medication if ideas presented to this weekend’s Pharmaceutical Society of New Zealand annual conference become commonly accepted.

Nelson based lifestyle pharmacist and health innovator, Hannah O’Malley, says pharmacists need to optimise lifestyle services to focus on nutrition and “recognise that they can provide a leading role” in changing health outcomes around the country.

“Nutrition deserves special attention,” she told attendees at the Auckland conference adding that the problem of poor nutrition had now overtaken smoking as a leading cause of health loss in New Zealand.

She invited pharmacists to consider the possibility that if they were able to provide a pill that could “significantly reduce the risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and bowel cancer, without any side effects; would you recommend it?”

She explained that her views on medication stemmed from her clinical pharmacy experience in hospitals where she “came to realise that despite our best care, medicines and procedures, I wasn’t doing anything to prevent patients from getting chronic illnesses, and I wasn’t able to return them to health.”

“We know that our health system is struggling, and our hospitals are bursting at the seams. Someone dies every 90 minutes from heart disease.

“There are hundreds of thousands of Kiwis living with diabetes and millions who are overweight or obese.

“ Our tamariki have the third highest rate of obesity in the world.

“The good news is that we can do something about it. The majority of cases of heart disease, diabetes and obesity are preventable.

“This is not about blaming individuals, rather looking at what we can do as a system and primary health sector to promote health, support disease prevention, and shift away from being the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.”

She said while medicines would always play an important role, “these health epidemics are not going to be solved by pharmaceuticals alone and our system needs to evolve.”

“To truly be a health service rather than a disease service, we must place a much greater focus on public health, prevention and utilisation of lifestyle medicine to help treat lifestyle diseases,” she said.

“As pharmacists, we have a duty to optimise the use of medicines. This means that we should utilise all effective, evidence-based treatment options available, including non-drug options. Especially when they have low to no risk of causing harm.”

She said a whole discipline known as Lifestyle Medicine was emerging that is complementary to pharmaceuticals.

“The six key areas of Lifestyle Medicine include a plant-predominant diet, regular exercise, sleeping well, stress management, strong social connections, and avoiding tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs.

“There are international bodies around the world leading this discipline, including the Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine who recently held their annual conference here in Auckland.”

She said evidence showed that eating a diet of mostly whole plant foods “can help prevent, manage and treat many of the chronic conditions that are plaguing our country.

“Dietary choices are the leading cause of health loss in NZ. Yet food choices are not routinely raised with patients.

“Observational studies of tens of thousands of people show a stepwise reduction in BMI and diabetes prevalence as people eat more plants. The same trends have been demonstrated with blood pressure and cholesterol, and even climate emissions in NZ.”

She said the climate emergency posed a “critical health risk” that our system has neglected.

“Healthy people need a healthy planet and this is under threat. The Lancet Medical Journal have named climate change as the greatest threat to human health of the century, but it could also be the greatest opportunity.

“Our children are calling on us to act, and the health sector needs to play an urgent leading role in this. Our Ministry of Health are also calling on us to act, and last week released a report titled ‘Sustainability and the Health Sector.

“There are huge co-benefits between sustainability and human health and The Lancet have named food as the number one lever for optimising both human health and sustainability on Earth.”

She said a social movement was underway to embrace lifestyle as medicine.

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