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Healthcare's Role in Climate Change

Thu, 01/22/2015 - 2:39pm -- Paul Linzmeyer

I want to bring awareness to the issue of sustainability and climate change from a different perspective—our health. If we start looking at high energy’s role not only in creating climate change, but also in having a negative impact on our health, we can then start thinking long-term in creating sustainability and climate change strategies. Healthcare’s commitment to sustainability principles should not be focused on improving healthcare, but rather improving overall health.

The Backdrop

If you look at what makes you healthy, medical care is only about 10% of the cause.

Most improvements in life quality and expectancy over the last several hundred years have been made in the basic fundamentals that we depend on for health: clean air, clean water, enough nutritious food, safe shelter and community, regular physical activity, and stable civilization. Climate change threatens all of those fundamentals through increased air temperature, raised sea levels, and extreme weather, such as drought, flooding, and tropical storms. And unfortunately the regions of the world contributing the least to climate change and greenhouse gases are going to be the most negatively affected.

When thinking about the health impacts of climate change, there are two areas to consider:

  1. Health impacts of climate change: The National Climate Assessment released in May 2014 confirms that changes in climate threaten human health and well-being in many ways. Some of these health impacts are already underway in the United States, and climate change will amplify some of the existing health threats the nation now faces in the future.
  2. Health impacts of fossil fuel usage, independent of climate change: We know that the use of fossil fuels contributes to four of the five leading causes of death in the US including heart disease, cancer, stroke and lung diseases, while putting our children at risk of asthma and delayed mental development. Particulate pollution alone, primarily from the burning of fossil fuels and biomass, is responsible for over 60,000 deaths each year in the US.

We are already seeing worse asthma, lung, and heart diseases in impovershed areas. A warmer world will have more hospitalizations and deaths from asthma, COPD, and heart disease. Warmer air with more CO2 creates a longer pollen season with higher pollen concentrations, worsening asthma and other allergic diseases.

The Business Case

Many healthcare executives have not looked widely and deeply enough to see the billions of dollars of potential savings by implementing best practices for energy and climate change. One study projected a conservative estimate of $15 Billion in energy savings for US healthcare alone. According to the National Academy of Sciences, the use of fossil fuels causes $120 billion in mostly health-related damages each year. Replacing coal alone with efficiency and clean energy could save 10,000 lives and $60 billion each year.

Consumption and Transit

In Wisconsin, the majority of our agricultural land is dedicated to the dairy and meat industries, both of which negatively impact our greenhouse gas emissions and watersheds. We import most of our fruit and vegetables which also contributes needlessly to emissions. Healthcare and public and private educational institutions need to change how they purchase food and thus create a market for a vibrant year-round local food economy made up of both urban and rural agricultural solutions delivered through a more innovative food distribution system. Reducing our intake of meat—especially beef—will help people maintain a healthy weight, prevent heart disease and cancer, and will play an important role in limiting climate change. The Lancet, a respected British health research journal, estimates a 30% decrease in adult consumption of saturated fat from animal sources would decrease heart disease by 15% in the U.K.

Improving the design of our cities and towns with pedestrians, bikes, and mass transit in mind will reduce emissions and help people become more physically active, lose weight, and fight depression—all the while helping decrease the skyrocketing healthcare costs of obesity. Replacing the need for short car trips in urban areas of the upper Midwest alone would save over 1,200 lives and $8 billion each year from cleaner air and greater physical activity.

Thedacare as a Leader in Sustainability

One of ThedaCare’s hospitals along with several schools and universities are acting as pilots to build a local food hub. Furthermore, we are installing food and compostable dinnerware waste systems that will remove organic matter from our landfills and our sewage systems. With these actions, we are eliminating obstacles to an efficient and competitive local food system aligned to national food distribution systems. We cannot grow many fruits and nuts here because of our climate and current technology, but we can grow much of our vegetables and organic or sustainable meats, fish, and poultry. The goal is to create food hubs that increase locally grown healthy, affordable and assessable food options.

Through our commitment to sustainability, we hope ThedaCare can become an example for educating the community of the benefits of climate change mitigation, adaptation strategies, and alternative fuel options.

Embracing sustainability forces us to rethink our practices and it re-engages us with all of our stakeholders in new and more meaningful ways. We as American healthcare leaders need to become a catalyst for this kind of thinking, not only in our organizations, but in the communities that we serve. Cleveland’s Circle Anchor community concept and the University of California – San Fransisco’s local healthy food programs are two excellent demonstrations of this. They realized that with their purchasing power and with leveraging other institutions, they can make remarkable change happen now.

Unfortunately, there are far too few examples of this kind of community involvement. American healthcare organizations need to not only support and encourage regional activism in sustainability, but also climate change, energy alternatives, and healthy food. We can no longer do things the same way and expect different results. Healthcare can and needs to drive the change necessary to achieve sustainable triple bottom outcomes of economic, environmental, and social justice.

So with this in mind, I joined a group of leaders from across the health care industry at the White House on December 15, 2014 to announce our commitment to enhance the climate resilience of our facilities and operations, using the Administration’s Climate Action Plan as a foundation. The plan recognizes that even as we take aggressive action to curb the carbon pollution that is driving climate change, we must also prepare for the climate impacts we are already seeing across the country.

Climate Change and Health

While some healthcare organizations such as those that met at the White House are prominent in both the strategizing and implementing of climate change and alternative energy policies, healthcare as a sector is not unified in these activities. This lack of unity, in effect, is harming the local, regional, and global communities they are meant to serve. The work of Healthcare Without Harm’s (HWOH) Climate Change Council (whose representatives met at the White House) is to drive all healthcare organizations to engage their communities in climate change action. Otherwise, inaction will prove to be counterproductive and costly to both their brand and bottom line. Healthcare must take a leadership role in driving for alternative energy and climate change strategies.

We can bring together a collaboration of business and community leaders to learn how to come up with innovative and efficient strategies and devise measurable outcomes—including the large increase in life supporting jobs through the technologies that are created by our collaboration. This regional collaboration in coordination with the HCWH’s Climate Change Council’s national strategy will drive a robust triple bottom line effort of a booming economy, a healthier environment, and society.

ThedaCare is committed to energy neutrality, closed looped water systems, and zero waste for our five hospitals and 30 clinics and other facilities. In 2012, they created my current position of Sustainability Leader to drive our sustainability journey. We are committed to being a leader among our regional healthcare organizations in taking on climate change and fossil fuel issues and bringing together the aforementioned collaboration for our region at a 2015 regional summit for healthcare and business leaders to devise strategies and action plans. The planning for this summit will begin at HCWH Climate Change Council’s first face-to-face meeting in February 2015. This summit will be coordinated by our nurses and clinicians, as we need their passion and engagement to make this event successful.

Contributors

Paul Linzmeyer is the Sustainability Leader at ThedaCare, a northeast Wisconsin healthcare organization with seven hospitals, a long term care facility, and thirty clinics and other facilities. He is a business leader with more than 20 years of executive experience including serving as president of Bay Towel in Green Bay.

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