The Impact of Climate Change on the US Healthcare System

Healthcare System Climate Change

(Credit: Canva Pro)

by | Jan 31, 2023

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Healthcare System Climate Change

(Credit: Canva Pro)

Changing weather patterns are impacting the spread of water-, vector- and food-borne diseases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that climate change will cause an additional $2 billion in healthcare costs by 2030 due to increased air pollution, an increase in heat waves and wildfires, and more frequent extreme weather events. These factors have already impacted hospital emergency rooms across the country and have led to a higher number of patients with respiratory illnesses like asthma.

“With longer allergy seasons, my patients with asthma are having more attacks and the poor and elderly cannot afford the additional medication and utility costs. Extreme weather events filled with uncertainties about safety affect our mental health. Health professionals are respected. Including our voices would be extremely valuable. Climate solutions are health solutions!” Cheryl M. Holder, M.D., program director of Neighborhood HELPEducation and Pipeline Program; and Associate Professor at the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine

In addition, healthcare facilities are at risk for water shortages as well as flooding and storm damage during extreme weather events that are expected to become more frequent as a result of climate change. Hospitals will also face higher costs associated with treating patients exposed to extreme heat or contaminated floodwaters.

As temperatures climb, so does our vulnerability to the spread of disease. An estimated 3 billion people — half of the world’s population — currently live in areas where infectious diseases are likely to spread as temperatures become warmer over the next century, according to research published in Nature Climate Change. The spread of disease is exacerbated by poor infrastructure in many developing nations, which often lack basic sanitation systems that could help prevent disease outbreaks. The CDC has identified over 130 diseases that are impacted by climate change, including dengue fever, Ebola virus disease, and malaria.

Healthcare System’s Carbon Footprint

The healthcare industry is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. In fact, the healthcare sector accounts for nearly 10 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and is expected to continue growing as the population ages and medical care becomes more sophisticated.

The climate footprint in the industry has grown significantly over the past decade due to increased energy use for medical equipment and buildings, as well as transportation-related activities (e.g., air travel). The American Hospital Association estimates that hospitals spend $3 billion annually on energy costs alone — a figure that will likely increase with time as hospitals continue to embrace new technologies like electronic medical records and information technology systems.

According to the CDP, the industry accounts for 18% of the US GDP and 5% of total energy consumption. Healthcare facilities use more than 10.3% of all electricity in the United States.

Pharmaceutical Industry

The pharmaceutical industry plays an important role in combatting these epidemics: It provides vaccines against dengue fever and measles; it produces medicines to treat HIV/AIDS; it develops drugs used in treating malaria; and it develops diagnostic tests used to detect infectious diseases such as cholera or tuberculosis

Pfizer’s Environmental/Climate Change Dashboard enables the company to track its contributions to greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and waste generation.

This dashboard will provide transparency into how climate change is affecting Pfizer, as well as opportunities for improvement. The tool uses publicly available data sources to create a baseline of Pfizer’s current environmental performance. It then allows Pfizer to compare its performance against industry benchmarks, leading indicators, and targets set by the company’s sustainability team.

Sustainable Markets Initiative Health Systems Task Force

The Sustainable Markets Initiative Health Systems Task Force (SMI) is made up of a team of physicians and health professionals who are committed to advancing the sustainability of health systems in the US. Their work includes providing expert analysis, recommendations, and advocacy on issues related to climate change, health policy, and philanthropy.

The impact of climate change on public health is a major concern for the SMI. The Task Force has conducted research that documents the potential impacts of climate change on human health and recommends policies that would help prevent these changes from occurring.

The following summary was published by the SMI: Climate change will have a significant impact on our healthcare system in multiple ways. It will affect how we deliver care, treat patients, and manage diseases. It will also affect access to healthcare services in vulnerable communities by influencing migration patterns as well as economic growth and job creation across regions.

The SMI task force set near-term emission reduction targets aligned with the 1.5-degree goal of the Paris Agreement, including a 40% reduction by 2030 and an 80% reduction by 2050. The report also called for greater investment in clean energy technologies, as well as increased research into carbon capture technologies.

Further, the report also recommended that the healthcare sector works toward reducing its own carbon footprint. This would include updating building codes to require LEED certification for new construction and retrofitting existing buildings with new energy efficiency technologies; increasing the number of electric vehicles in hospital fleets; installing rooftop solar panels on all new buildings; and using more efficient light bulbs and air conditioning systems.

Common Set of Supplier Standards

Climate impacts also threaten to strain the supply chain that supports the healthcare sector, which represents one of the largest industries in America.

Healthcare Group Purchasing Industry Initiative (HGPII) is working with its members to address these risks. HGPII’s mission is to improve patient care through collaboration and innovation in healthcare purchasing, and it provides a platform for sharing best practices and strategies for reducing costs. HGPII has a long history of working with its members on sustainability issues, including energy efficiency, waste reduction, and recycling, water conservation, and environmental stewardship.

In 2016, HGPII saw an opportunity to help members address climate change risks by facilitating collaboration among its supply chain partners along the value chain from raw materials through manufacturing and distribution to use in clinical settings. To do this, HGPII created the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative — an online toolkit that enables members to assess their supply chains’ resilience to climate change-related risks; identify opportunities for collaboration; develop joint action plans; and share best practices among peers.

The initiative helps member companies identify how they can work together as an industry to address climate change risks — including extreme heat events or extreme

Future Initiatives 

CDC’s climate change program works in collaboration with public health departments, state and local health departments, tribal health departments, and academic institutions to develop and implement activities that address the health impacts of climate change. The following are examples of the CDC’s priority activities:

Building on existing programs and the Essential Public Health Services, CDC has identified the following priority health actions for climate change:

  • Enhance surveillance and monitoring systems to capture early warning signals of potential health impacts from climate change at the national, regional, and local levels.
  • Develop strategies for preventing and reducing the impact of extreme heat events through outreach efforts aimed at informing vulnerable populations about how to stay safe during extreme heat events.
  • Improve preparedness for natural disasters by increasing awareness among healthcare providers about disaster preparedness and response strategies; increase public access to emergency supplies such as medications; and increase public access to information about natural disasters through media campaigns, social marketing efforts, etc.

The healthcare industry is uniquely positioned to understand and act on climate change because it affects us directly. The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that “climate change is a major threat to global public health.” In the past decade alone, there have been more than 300,000 deaths from natural disasters caused by climate change — and those numbers are likely to increase in coming years.

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