The healthcare industry must take action against climate change, "a health issue that will affect everyone in the world," according to Healthcare Without Harm President Gary Cohen and Gundersen Health System CEO Jeffrey Thompson in an editorial for LiveScience.
Cohen and Thompson cite the spread of mosquito-borne diseases such as Dengue fever to new regions and the increase in respiratory problems in communities downwind of coal-power plants as just two examples of how climate change has already begun to affect public health.
"The world is learning that it is not possible to support the population when the planet is sick," they wrote.
Healthcare, the authors said, "occupies a unique position in society to admit its contribution to the problem, and to lead the fight against climate change." For example, they call for hospitals, which use far more energy than schools or offices, to take steps to increase sustainability. This action, they said, will "simultaneously ... reduce the rising disease burden and reduce the globe's spiraling healthcare costs."
Cohen and Thompson also urge hospitals and clinics to have contingency plans in place for the fallout from climate change, saying they should be "the last buildings standing in a hurricane."
They are not the only ones thinking along these lines. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has developed a strategy to design new hospitals that are better equipped to deal with the effects of climate change and make similar adjustments to existing hospitals. These strategies include increasing the flood-resistance requirements for new facilities and ensuring power backups in the case of flooding or extreme temperatures.
But Cohen and Thompson believe the call to action should extend throughout the country. They call for healthcare professionals to take the lead in communicating the reality of climate change to the public at large, citing doctors and nurses' successful messaging regarding the health hazards posed by tobacco products. Healthcare, they wrote, must "clean up its own system, and live its mission of addressing the environmental and social conditions that are making people sick in the first place."