The past year forced healthcare to grapple with never-before-seen challenges. In response, facilities and clinicians found ways to think creatively, adapt, and find common ground with peers to best steward the health and safety of our communities. But the pandemic isn’t the only challenge requiring that kind of response. The healthcare industry is placing greater emphasis than ever before on the issue of climate change amidst the news and commitments coming out of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26.
The greater emphasis following this year’s conference is perhaps related to an increased overall focus on direct impacts to public health as well as the looming presence of a global pandemic that nearly all countries have struggled to manage. Countries like Britain are looking to reduce emissions by piloting a first-of-its-kind zero-emissions ambulance, citing that air pollution contributes to one out of every 20 deaths in the United Kingdom. The new vehicle was parked and promoted at the events in Glasgow. It is also notable that the healthcare industry has been increasingly concerned with variability in health outcomes due to social determinants of health; the impacts to human health by climate change and environmental pollution are also felt disproportionately by vulnerable communities.
The COP26 commitments included one from the U.S. Biden Administration to halve the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. According to Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), an international nongovernmental organization concerned with mitigating healthcare’s impact on environmental health, “the U.S. health sector is responsible for 8.5% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and 27% of the global health care emissions… Addressing the climate crisis as a core driver of disease must be central to the health sectors’ mission today and in the future. As a fundamental sector in our society, and the only sector with healing as its mission, it makes sense for health care to lead the way to kick our addiction to fossil fuels, improve public health, and save billions of dollars in health costs in the process.”
They posited that healthcare has a unique relationship with climate change because of healthcare's role in bearing the financial costs and human health burden (see Figure 1 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) from “increased disease spread and more frequent extreme weather events.”
This belief is shared by at least 45 million healthcare workers (which represents 75% of the health professionals in the world) associated with letters urging immediate action on climate change. There are already leaders in these efforts throughout the U.S. The Healthcare Climate Council created a playbook (see Figure 2) for operationalizing climate solutions in areas such as energy, food, leadership, operating rooms, purchasing, infrastructure, transportation, and waste.
The playbook contains success stories of facilities that have made meaningful changes, such as one about the Cleveland Clinic saving more than $4 million in 2019 by reducing air changes per hour during non-surgical periods as part of their Operating Room Setback Plan. They save 25 million kWh/year in energy use and $2.5 million annually. Similarly, Ascension deployed a data dashboard to report facility operations (energy, water, temperature, humidity, and air changes) on a real-time basis, and they implemented a pulse oximeter collection project that resulted in 664,000 medical devices collected and 66.4 tons of landfill waste avoided. They reported that this effort required collaboration between green teams, the purchasing department, environmental services, clinicians, facility managers, and the medical device reprocessing vendor.
Quality improvement efforts in healthcare have always been multifaceted, seeking to systematically reduce variation and improve outcomes by standardizing processes and structures. Quality professionals look at technology, personnel, culture, physical capital, leadership, training, operations, and procedures, among other areas. This means that healthcare’s quality improvement teams are uniquely positioned to support their leadership in identifying and implementing climate solutions. These changes that help mitigate climate impacts also often lead to more efficient, sustainable care delivery.
There are a number of professional organizations ready to assist and offer guidelines for practice improvement, including Health Care Without Harm, its sister organization Practice Greenhealth, the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, the American Society of Anesthesiologists, the Association of American PeriOperative Registered Nurses, and the American Academy of Family Physicians, among others.
Much like with the COVID-19 pandemic, the actions and decisions of one facility, community, or country ultimately have an impact on everyone else, which means a culture of collaboration is a prerequisite for the successful integration of climate change mitigation in healthcare. If your hospital or physician organization has achieved value or outcome improvements that relate to environmental health or sustainability, the MVC Coordinating Center can help share your story. Please contact the MVC team at firstname.lastname@example.org.