How hospitals can blaze a trail on climate change

Hospitals and healthcare providers are uniquely positioned to address and raise awareness of the effects of climate change. Currently, many hospitals around the country are not only attempting to reduce their environmental footprint, but also ready their facilities and personnel for the challenges posed by climate change.

"An emerging conversation about climate change places healthcare institutions, and the buildings that house them, at an inflection point. The health effects of climate change are real, apparent and urgent," wrote Adele Houghton, an architect and president of the green building firm BioSitu, in Healthcare Design.

"The 3rd U.S. Climate Assessment, published in 2014, found that climate change both amplifies existing health conditions (such as asthma, allergies, and cardiovascular disease) and threatens human health in new ways [such as the threat posed by contact with disease-carrying insects as they migrate to more temperate climates or closer to human settlements]," Houghton said. Moreover, she wrote, recent polls of U.S. physicians found 70 percent have already seen negative health outcomes associated with climate change, such as worsening seasonal allergies, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

In August,a Brown University study found that in the state of Rhode Island, higher annual temperatures correlated directly with increased ER visits for an array of illnesses--many of which might seem initially unrelated to the heat, while in June, medical journal The Lancet issued an urgent report calling the healthcare profession to take action regarding climate change.

Hospitals such as Boston Medical Center have taken steps to reduce their impact on the environment at all levels, from composting food waste from its kitchens to installing its own, more-efficient power plant on campus. 

"BMC, spread over several city blocks in the South End, is on track to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 50 percent by 2020, twice as aggressive as the goal of most other city hospitals, according to BMC and two groups that encourage hospitals to cut energy use," reported the Boston Globe.

In late 2014, the Obama administration issued a list of climate change guidelines for hospitals, FierceHealthcare previously reported. Among the report's recommendations were instructions to "Locate emergency departments away from areas susceptible to flooding, develop contingency plans for electrical and water supply generation, work with local officials on road plans to ensure medical professionals and patients can reach hospitals during a weather emergency and to build or rebuild hospitals to better prepare them for extreme weather events."

Houghton said that while many health systems in the U.S. are taking steps to tackle climate change considerations, "more can and should be done to demonstrate the healthcare sector's leadership in protecting their patients from the health effects of climate change. Happily, these actions will also help the industry grapple with the chronic disease epidemic facing not only our nation but the world."

To learn more:
- read the Healthcare Design article
- here's the Brown study
- read the Lancet report
- check out the Globe article