World Economic Forum lays out steps to create 'climate-resilient health systems' in new report

At the end of 2023, health was formally included on the climate agenda for the first time at the 28th Conference of the Parties, or COP28.

That focus continued this week, as the World Economic Forum kicked off with a new report exploring the impact of climate change on human health. Climate, nature and energy are among key themes at this year's 54th annual conference in Davos, Switzerland.

The analysis focused on how climate will likely transform the healthcare landscape over the next two decades, as well as actionable strategies to mitigate and prepare for the looming threat. The industry must consider how its operations can be more resilient and how its workforce can be prepared to handle this now and long-term, authors from the World Economic Forum and management consulting firm Oliver Wyman wrote.

"This must be a moment of reflection for the healthcare industry," they wrote.

Quantifying the scale of the disaster is an important first step, per the report. The next, it said, is to understand how well current systems would cope with this level of stress. Regular stress tests could be helpful to check the status quo, while solutions need to be tailored to regional needs and populations served.

The climate context 

The report highlighted six weather-related natural disasters: droughts, heat waves, tropical storms, wildfires and sea level rise. These events shape regional climates and influence various sectors, the report said, and cause harm to air, water quality and food availability. 

Climate change is changing the landscape of morbidity and mortality with cascading effects, the report said. Health outcomes—from physical to social to economic—involve direct and indirect consequences of climate-related disasters. They can range from respiratory to cardiovascular diseases to malnutrition to mental health conditions and more.

These climate events also exacerbate existing health disparities, disproportionately affecting vulnerable communities. Up to 3.6 billion people live in areas highly vulnerable to climate change globally. The accumulated financial loss by 2030 from extreme temperatures alone is expected to reach $2.4 trillion, the report said.

Taking steps toward resistance, resilience 

There are two areas the report suggested that health systems must focus on: resistance, or the ability to prevent, reduce or delay climate impact; and recovery, or the ability to bounce back fast. 

For climate resiliency, communities can consider adaptation planning, infrastructure resilience, disease surveillance and response, capacity building, innovative R&D, continuous evidence gathering and policy integration, the report suggested.

Adaptation measures might include forecasting activities like new therapeutic or diagnostic development or ensuring enhanced access and production capacities. This can also be facilitated by knowledge sharing and community involvement. 

Developing solutions for climate-resilient health systems will require coordination among all stakeholders and identification of risk factors. Tech and media, for instance, can help stakeholders set up early warning systems and push out alerts and educational materials to affected communities. 

Pharma and medtech have significant roles to play, with work on improved diagnostics, monitoring devices and drug delivery systems needed for preparedness. This will enable early detection and intervention, leading to better outcomes, the report noted. 

Hospitals and clinics, however, can do their part to drive resistance and resilience. Actionable steps for resistance include preventive education and preventive treatments for at-risk populations, diagnostics to identify social determinants and mobile clinics to maintain access to patients. Steps toward recovery include a broad offering of treatment options, ongoing resource training and upskilling with the latest treatments and a preparedness plan of emergency services. 

Though public sector support and involvement is crucial, from awareness campaigns to infrastructure to funding, the private sector’s role remains critical for its funding and operational know-how, according to the report. 

While private companies may face challenges while scaling in times of crisis, government incentives can help encourage their involvement. Such incentives could include direct economic incentives, financial enablement, regulation and awareness. 

“Broad dissemination of information and best practices not only raise awareness about pressing health issues, but they cultivate a collaborative environment where diverse entities can unite to tackle the evolving challenges,” the report's authors wrote.

As such, public-private sector collaboration will be absolutely necessary for a sustainable future.

“Much more is needed given the pervasiveness and severity of the climate problem,” the report concluded. “So far, governments and industry have been slow to step up.”