UPMC is taking major steps to tackle climate change. Here's how doctors led the charge to revamp its sustainability efforts

Noedahn Copley-Woods, M.D., is a self-proclaimed outdoors enthusiast. During her medical training, she recalls feeling disillusioned with “a sense of moral injury,” she told Fierce Healthcare, from producing a concerning amount of trash while taking care of her patients.

The sentiment, Woods believes, is shared by many providers. “A lot of us are very aware we should not be destroying the basis for our existence,” Woods said. 

As an OB-GYN and assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Woods began to learn and talk about climate change with the goal of minimizing her environmental impact. She was tapped by Thuy Bui, M.D., who directs the internal medicine residency program, to speak to med students yearning for more resources on environmental justice.

Interest from across the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) hospitals, university faculty, students and residents picked up. In 2022, it culminated with Woods and her colleagues establishing Clinicians for Climate Action, a group that today is made up of more than 450 healthcare workers committed to decarbonizing the sector in Pennsylvania.

A new program and new goals 

Parallel to the group’s efforts, president of UPMC Innovative Homecare Solutions Michael Boninger, M.D., began reaching out to leadership to convey the urgency of tackling sustainability. 

“It was me saying, I'd like to do this work, I want to help, I want this to be part of my job,” Boninger told Fierce Healthcare. He got his wish, becoming UPMC’s chief medical sustainability officer in September 2022. 

The physician-led momentum and the establishment of a new Center for Sustainability led to the restructuring of UPMC’s sustainability program. Last fall, UPMC signed onto the Health Care Sector Climate Pledge, led by the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services. UPMC committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. Its other goals include total renewable electricity for UPMC operations by 2030 and divesting its reserve portfolio away from fossil fuel companies.

On Earth Day this month, UPMC expects to publicly announce its ESG goals with a new website, complete with open-source slide decks on sustainability topics and recorded talks on the topic. 

“Sustainability is a very conscious word. It’s not just about carbon footprint,” Boninger said. It’s also about equity and diversity.

As co-chair of a subcommittee on equity at Clinicians for Climate Action, Bui advocates for evaluating not only the external but also the internal impacts of such an effort.

“There's always the risk of inequity in any new initiative,” Bui told Fierce Healthcare. That could look like an uneven workload among the group’s volunteers. So the group is incorporating an equity lens in their data collection and performance measures. Having ESG goals publicly available will also help ensure accountability. 

“We are building this car, if you will, while we’re driving it,” Boninger said.

UPMC is focusing on the “win-win interventions,” Woods said—those that reduce cost and environmental impact. The organization intends to keep a public cost-savings tracker representing goals that have been met.

Getting the buy-in

C-suite support for sustainability initiatives is critical. Woods and her collaborators at Clinicians for Climate Action were able to quickly get buy-in from the very top. At the start, the group outlined a list of the top six things UPMC could start to do in order to become more sustainable. They sent the list to CEO Leslie Davis, and, in less than 24 hours, she had agreed, Woods said.

That go-ahead allowed the group to add a clinical component to the system’s ESG goals as the program restructured, tying it to nutrition, the supply chain and other elements.

A sense of collaboration among clinicians can help signal to leadership that such an effort is worthy of investment. “It’s a great example of how you bring people together,” Bui said. And having evidence- and data-obsessed physicians rally other physicians is a powerful catalyst for change. “When you take a couple of physicians and you give them a task, they turn out to be really good at accomplishing tasks,” Woods said.

Camaraderie is even more important than education on climate change, Woods believes. “More information is not what turns people into activation,” she said. 

Hope is not the belief that the future will be different, but the ability to imagine a different future. “I have the capacity to imagine that in the future, there will be a way of living that is comfortable, that is healthy,” Woods said. Agreeing over that idea makes tackling a daunting problem more doable. Community is what makes the difference. 

And tackling climate can be empowering for clinicians. “We know what the right thing to do for the patient is, but we sometimes can’t because of a whole host of things outside of our control,” Woods noted. “This is the antidote to that on some level.”