Shireen Kassam, Consultant Haematologist & Co-Founder of Plant-Based Health Online, KCH NHS
How the NHS can use a plant-based approach, backed by scientific evidence, to improve clinical treatment and help reduce its carbon footprint
As a young girl, Shireen Kassam dreamed of being a concert pianist but in her adult years she undertook the equally rigorous training to become a haematologist, or a “she-matologist,” she laughs, “because of the sheer number of females in the profession.”
What fascinates this doctor, though, is the scientific role of plant-based diet in preventing serious disease and helping to curb climate change.
“At the end of the day, they all ask me the same questions. What can I do? How can I improve my chances? What should I eat?”
She says: “I realised there was a large body of scientific data that supported either a predominantly plant-based or 100% plant-based diet for improving health outcomes. The more we approximate a plant-based diet, the lower the risk of heart disease, certain cancers and type two diabetes.”
Shireen spent five years educating herself and “getting comfortable with the data,” during which time she realised “there is a large and growing movement of people practising scientifically informed lifestyle medicine in the UK.”
She considers being able to advise her own patients using scientific evidence for the benefits of plant-based diet as crucial: “At the end of the day, they all ask me the same questions. What can I do? How can I improve my chances? What should I eat?”
Shireen describes her scientific plant-based work as “intimately relevant” to what she does in the clinical practice: “My patients with lymphoma have to go through conventional treatments, but the vast majority have other underlying chronic health conditions.”
“I'm in the fourth year of running the UK’s only course on plant-based diet in clinical practice at the University of Winchester. It's fully online and available globally."
People underestimate the impact of chronic health conditions on developing cancer and also on affecting the outcomes of the treatment available. This includes “how much they tolerate the side effects, and also how well they live after completing treatment.”
So important to Shireen is her scientific plant-based work that, in 2017, she founded Plant Based Health Professionals UK, a community interest company and membership organisation, providing education and advocacy on healthy plant-based diets for healthcare professionals, the public and policy makers.
This has led to the launch of a healthcare service, with co-founder and GP Dr Laura Freeman, called Plant Based Health Online. It's the first CQC registered plant-based lifestyle medicine healthcare service in the UK, helping patients manage their diagnosis, treatment and recovery from chronic diseases and certain cancers. It consists of a multi-disciplinary team of doctors, dietitians and healthcare specialists that use an evidence-based, scientifically proven approach to achieve improved health outcomes through the adoption of sustainable lifestyle habits.
“Healthcare organisations need to implement policies that will reduce their carbon footprint”
Since 2018, Shireen has been a Visiting Professor of Plant-Based Nutrition at the University of Winchester where she has developed and facilitates the UK’s only University-based CPD-accredited course on plant-based nutrition for healthcare professionals. She states: “I'm in the fourth year of running the UK’s only course on plant-based diet in clinical practice at the University of Winchester. It's fully online and available globally. And that's been really successful.” This year she has published two books. The first co-authored with her sister Zahra, a radiation oncologist, and aimed at a general audience; Eating Plant-Based, Scientific Answers to Your Nutrition Questions. The second, a co-edited multi-author textbook aimed at healthcare professionals and institutions, Plant-Based Nutrition in Clinical Practice.
Scientifically proven, plant-based, lifestyle medicine has become more prevalent in the NHS in recent years for reasons that also pertain to sustainability and environmental health. The NHS has said that it will deliver net zero emission healthcare by 2045, and “healthcare organisations need to implement policies that will reduce their carbon footprint”.
Globally, four to five percent of all greenhouse gas emissions are from the healthcare sector, be it from medical devices, consumables or pharmaceutical supply. The most influential action individuals can take to limit their carbon footprint is to adopt a plant-based diet, and the Green Strategy at King's College Hospital includes a move towards a more plant-based food environment for staff and patients and visitors. “Being a role model within the healthcare environment is essential,” concludes Shireen.
Genevieve Shaw, Founder & Editor-in-chief
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