Healthcare: The Frontlines of Mitigating Climate Change

Bob Herman
April 22, 2014
Beckers Hospital Review 
Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a new, highly touted report on global greenhouse gas emissions and what anthropogenic climate change means for the human race.
Essentially, the science on the issue has become even clearer. The world's top climate scientists said emissions have already changed climate patterns significantly, and major steps will have to be taken immediately to avoid an increase in the average global temperature of 2 degrees Celsius — and potentially worse conditions.
This month, advocacy group Health Care Without Harm released a report of its own, "Health Care & Climate Change: An Opportunity for Transformative Leadership," coinciding with the IPCC's. It similarly focused on the issue of climate change, but HCWH officials tailored the discussion specifically toward healthcare leaders. Considering the energy-intensive nature of hospitals and health systems, as well as their stated missions of serving their populations with high-quality healthcare, HCWH believes healthcare executives serve an important role in the fight — a fight that is putting the entire healthcare system in a position of accountability.
Healthcare and climate change: Linked at the hip
Hospitals are the bedrocks of nearly every U.S. community, but that also comes at a price. Data from the Department of Energy and Energy Information Administration show modern hospitals consume roughly 2.5 times the energy used in other sectors, due chiefly to the fact hospitals are 24/7 facilities and require large volumes of water, electricity and other forms of energy. Figures from Practice Greenhealth also show hospitals directly contribute to today's financial and public health issues.
"A typical 200-bed hospital dependent upon electricity generated from coal using 7 million kWh is responsible for more than $1 million per year in negative societal public health impacts and $107,000 per year in direct healthcare costs," according to HCWH's report.
Some of those public health costs include increased respiratory diseases associated with more carbon pollution, like asthma. Worldwide, these costs measure into the billions, says Gary Cohen, president and founder of HCWH, Practice Greenhealth and the Healthier Hospitals Initiative. If hospitals ever needed a reason to pay attention to the effects of climate change, those statistics alone should spur action.
"Hospitals have a powerful rationale for investing in clean energy," says Mr. Cohen, who was honored by theWhite House last year for his efforts to improve environmental health and sustainability. "It improves their efficiency, saves them money, guarantees greater resilience and reduces their greenhouse gas emissions, which supports community and global health."
Jeff Thompson, MD, a pediatrician who serves as president and CEO of Gundersen Health System in La Crosse, Wis., has been one of the fiercest advocates of changing the hospital paradigm to lessen carbon emissions. His system, highlighted in HCWH's report, is set to become the first energy-independent hospital organization in the country this year. He says other hospital executives should ask themselves what they are trying to accomplish as the public's primary source of healthcare.