Making a difference: How the US healthcare system can combat climate change

The time has come for healthcare providers in the United States to step up and do their part to save the environment, according to a new commentary published in the New England Journal of Medicine. If health systems are truly dedicated to providing the best care possible, the authors wrote, it’s essential that they take climate change seriously and do everything they can to make a difference.

“Nowhere are the effects of climate change manifesting more clearly than in human health,” wrote first author Victor J. Dzau, MD, from the National Academy of Medicine (NAM), and colleagues. “Although many people consider climate change a looming threat, health problems stemming from it already kill millions of people per year.”

The group went on, noting that “those of us who have the privilege to serve in healthcare also have an obligation to address this major threat.” The most direct way health systems can achieve that goal, they explained, is by working to reduce their own carbon footprint. The authors then shared a few key statistics: U.S. health systems are responsible for approximately 8.5% of the country’s carbon emissions—and 25% of the entire world’s carbon emissions, “the highest proportion attributable to any individual country’s health sector.”

Dzau et al. also point to the potential cost savings that can come from a healthier planet.

“Ameliorating the sector’s environmental effects and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions could not only improve health for everyone, but also reduce costs of care,” the authors wrote. “The World Health Organization estimates that the costs of climate change’s direct damage to health (not including costs of damage mediated by effects on agriculture, water, and sanitation) will reach $2 billion to $4 billion per year by 2030. Furthermore, climate change is affecting our ability to deliver safe, effective, and efficient care. Extreme weather and other climate-sensitive events lead to hospital evacuations, power outages, infrastructure damage, shortages of medical products and supplies, and other disruptions.”

The authors highlighted four key ways to “decarbonize” the nation’s health system:

  1. Reduce carbon emissions in the healthcare supply chain
  2. Reduce carbon emissions at hospitals and other facilities
  3. Educating healthcare professionals
  4. Developing policies and incentives that help make the previous three points possible

NAM has launched a new public-private collaboration with this topic in mind: the Action Collaborative on Decarbonizing the U.S. Health Sector. Dzau and his co-authors are all involved in this partnership.

“We hope that by spotlighting the human health effects of climate change and the capabilities of public–private collaboration, the collaborative’s efforts will reverberate beyond the health sector and mobilize other sectors to take action against climate change to achieve the broader systemic transformation that is needed,” the authors wrote. “The time for leadership, commitment, and action is now—our health and future hang in the balance.”

Click here to read the full commentary.

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