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Healthcare: The Frontlines of Mitigating Climate Change

Written by Bob Herman | April 22, 2014

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 the White 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.

"We believe we need to 'look in the mirror' when it comes to environmental factors that affect human disease," Dr. Thompson has previously said. "We cannot improve the health of the communities we serve without looking at our organization's environmental impact and how that contributes to disease. In addition, rising energy costs directly affect our ability to invest in and deliver patient care, and they contribute to the rising cost of healthcare."

Creating change to save the planet and money
Eric Lerner, director of HCWH's climate program and a major contributor to the climate change report, says one of the most important components of this battle is getting healthcare providers to rally behind the cause — and there eventually will be a tipping point.

"A breakthrough will occur when the healthcare sector fully embraces the perspective that leading the fight against climate change is inherently aligned with both mission and fiduciary responsibilities," the report reads.

Throughout 2013, many studies and analyses backed that premise — that healthcare sustainability investments are not only good for a hospital or health system's mission, but they are also good for financial reasons.

"We really want to emphasize these types of investments are highly cost-effective," Mr. Lerner says. "They are doable. Over the long term, they end up saving hospitals a lot of money."

For example, reports on LEED-certified hospitals, combined heat and power systems and other energy efficiency measures have bubbled to the surface, each indicating there are hard savings from sustainability projects. Hospital CEOs and many physicians, like Dr. Thompson, have become early adopters, and now hospital finance leaders are also starting to take notice.

"Speaking as a CFO, if done right, [sustainability efforts] could have good financial results for an organization," Steve Glass, CFO of Cleveland Clinic, told Becker's Hospital Review last year. "There are many examples out there. We make sure we are mindful of the environment and utilizing resources that could reduce waste, our footprint and costs."

As hospitals and health systems go through Earth Week, Mr. Lerner says he hopes the report can catalyze leaders to make the necessary changes.

"We want to use this paper to start having conversations with hospitals that want to be part of this process," Mr. Lerner says. "This is a starting place for having a much larger conversation with the sector."

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