How sustainability initiatives can mitigate climate risks and advance health equity: Deloitte

As climate change accelerates, human health will suffer, experts say. Climate change also can exacerbate health inequity and increase the total cost of healthcare services.

Many stakeholders across the healthcare ecosystem are finally beginning to feel a broad sense of urgency, according to a new report from Deloitte. At Intermountain Healthcare, for example, climate change has become an organizational priority, driving investments in renewable energy, decarbonization and energy efficiency.

“We have seen a pretty significant acceleration across the board in interest in ESG (environmental, social and governance) and the relevance it plays,” Elizabeth Baca, M.D., specialist leader for Health Care and Life Science Strategy at Deloitte, told Fierce Healthcare. Climate change is the greatest public health threat, and, in the U.S., the health sector contributes up to nearly 10% of nationwide emissions.

The health sector must help combat the effects of climate change by building more resilient organizations, Deloitte warned in its latest report.

This is Deloitte’s first report dedicated to the intersection of climate change and healthcare. (It separately recently put out a sustainability report.) In compiling the climate change and healthcare report, the company spoke to more than 15 U.S.-based organizations, it told Fierce Healthcare. 

Baca thinks the pandemic, which has emphasized healthcare disparities, contributed to an awakening among the medical community. She referenced the most recent United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) as the first time healthcare has been a major focus of the conference. 

As climate change continues to take hold and the health sector moves increasingly toward a value-based care model, the cost of healthcare is expected to rise, the report said, in particular amid changes that lead to damaged infrastructure, supply chain disruptions and the increased complexity of care. 

“Health care leaders should be actively considering climate resiliency as an enterprise-wide strategy,” the report said. Organizations hold “a responsibility to prove resiliency in times of need and to contribute to building healthier communities.” 

The report laid out three strategies: mitigation, adaptation and transformation. Mitigation is meant to minimize one’s contribution to emissions, including through the use of renewables and waste management. Adaptation involves investments in climate-resilient infrastructure and addressing social drivers of health. Transformation can be carried out through innovation of new products and services.

Decarbonization efforts should go beyond net zero, the report noted, citing as an example Genentech’s road map to reaching true zero from direct emissions and those related to purchased energy by 2050. 

Through conversations with sustainability leaders in healthcare, Deloitte concluded that most industry participants struggle with mitigating indirect emissions resulting from the supply chain. Doing so requires ongoing efforts to gather supplier data to understand the full scope of the industry’s carbon footprint. Real-time data are also key to helping health systems predict climate events and intervene accordingly.

Health plans, which have access to member health data, can leverage technology to compare it to climate data to warn members in advance. For instance, health plans can text patients with respiratory conditions of looming poor air quality. 

Every organization, no matter its size, should aim to have a leader dedicated to its sustainability agenda and overseeing the broader ESG portfolio. Making this an institutional priority is key to success, Baca said. She noted the “unique role” the healthcare sector has to play not only because of its own contributions to climate change, but also because it impacts the actual mission of the work – to keep people healthy. 

“Even if your organization has prioritized environmental and climate issues for some years, these strategic questions and considerations can still be leveraged to do a health check on your current path,” the report said. 

The urgency of climate change can often be framed around “doom and gloom,” Baca noted, but there is an opportunity to act. “Thinking about it in terms of positives and the ability to make change I think is really important,” she said.