Johns Hopkins researcher: US healthcare system must address climate change

The United States healthcare system must prepare for climate change's impact, Al Sommer, M.D., dean emeritus of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, told Kaiser Health News in an interview.

The effect of climate change on hospitals is often overlooked, Sommer told KHN. In heavily populated areas, excessive heat could lead to situations similar tothe 1995 Chicago heat wave, when 700 people died in a one-week period.

Sommer helped oversee development of a report released this week, "American Climate Prospectus: Economic Risks in the United States," which examines the effects of climate change on economics, and elaborated on the ramifications to the healthcare system.

"The challenge is like every challenge in public health," Sommer said. "The average CEO is worried about making quarterly profits, so they don't care. Getting people to be concerned about the future is tough."

Large amounts of people without the means to move in response to increased temperatures means the healthcare system will experience a "surge" due to health problems associated with excessive heat, Sommer said. Healthcare systems understand they have to prepare, he said, but paying for the preparation is another matter entirely. In the meantime, he said, they can put pressure on policymakers to address the issue. Hospitals in areas like Miami, he said, which will see temperatures and water levels rise, may  go out of business due to a mass exodus, meaning hospitals in less at-risk states may need to expand to deal with the shift.

Healthcare CEOs can lead the discussion, Sommer told KHN. "I'm sure they've talked about pandemic flu, but I doubt they've talked about this," he said. "The fact that you can predict the amount of people who will show up in ER with heat stroke, [then] you can start assessing it."

Last year, healthcare executives called for action on climate change, calling it "an issue that will affect everyone in the world," citing consequences like the spread of mosquito-borne diseases and increased respiratory problems downwind of coal-power plants, FierceHealthcare previously reported. There are several ways for healthcare facilities to address the risks posed by climate change, including energy conservation and green renovations.

To learn more:
- check out the report
- read the interview