Perspectives

Climate change, health systems, and hospital medicine


 

Carbon-neutral health care

Health care is one of the few industries that has the economic clout, the scientific basis, the community engagement, and perhaps most importantly the motivations to “first, do no harm” that could lead a national (if not a global) transformation in environmental stewardship among all industries.

Many agree that action is needed, but is essential that we set specific meaningful goals that take into account the urgency of the situation. One possible solution is to encourage every health care system to begin the process of becoming carbon neutral. Simply defined, carbon neutrality is balancing the activities that result in carbon emissions with activities that reduce carbon emissions. Carbon neutrality has become the standard by which an industry’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions is measured. The measurement is standardized and achievable, and the basic concept is understood by most. It results not only in long-term benefits to climate change, but immediate improvement of air quality in the local community. In addition, achieving carbon neutrality serves as a catalyst of new desired industries, improves employee morale, and aids in recruitment.3

So, what would a carbon-neutral health care system look like? In short, sustainability should be considered in all of its actions. Risks and benefits would be contemplated, as we do with all treatments, except now environmental risks would be brought into the equation. This includes the obvious, such as purchasing and supporting the development of renewable energy, but also transportation of patients and employees, food supply chains, and even the use of virtual visits to reduce the environmental impact of patient transportation.

I am optimistic that carbon neutrality is achievable in the health care sector. It can drive economic development and engage the community in environmental stewardship efforts. But time is of the essence and leaders for these efforts are needed now. As hospitalists, we are on the front lines of the health care system. We see the direct impact of social, economic, and environmental issues on our patients. We have credibility with both our patients and hospital administration. Among all industries, there need to be champions of environmental sustainability efforts. Hospitalists are uniquely positioned to fill that role.

My concern is that 12 years is right around the corner. We are at an inflection point on our efforts to reduce carbon emissions and that is good, but time has become our enemy. The difference between terrible and unlivable will be our, and the world’s, response to reducing carbon emissions.

It is time for bold action from us, the health care community. It is our moment and our place to lead those efforts, so let’s take advantage of both this challenge and this opportunity. Consider leading those efforts in your health care system.

Dr. Conrad is medical director of community affairs and health policy at Ochsner Health Systems in New Orleans.

References

1. Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C. Incheon [Republic of Korea]: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 7 Oct 2018.

2. Eckelman MJ, Sherman J. Environmental Impacts of the U.S. Health Care System and Effects on Public Health. PLoS ONE. 11(6):e0157014.

3. McCunn LJ, Gifford R. Do green offices affect employee engagement and environmental attitudes? Archit Sci Rev. 55:2;128-34. doi: 10.1080/00038628.2012.667939.

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