Healthcare systems undertake a fundamental and challenging mission: keeping us healthy. But true health and wellbeing extends beyond hospital walls and examination rooms. Our bodies and minds, after all, can only be as healthy as the environments that nourish them.
It should go without saying then that what is bad for our environment — or planet — is equally bad for our health. Sure, loss of nature and biodiversity, upticks in pollution, and poor stewardship of our farmlands all have a direct impact on the natural, wondrous world around us. But our individual, human health is paying the price, too.
As a physician, I took an oath to do no harm. As a policy maker in Washington, I honored this oath through my focus on healthcare systems and global health. And now as a voice for nature and health in my role as Chair of the Global Board of The Nature Conservancy, I’ve begun to more closely examine that intersection between the health of our bodies and the health of our natural world, as well as the larger, more direct impact broader industries like the healthcare sector are having on our environment.
The World Health Organization lists climate change as the single biggest threat we face to our health. At first, this might seem alarmist. But when looking at the science and data, indeed we are already seeing the catastrophic impacts.
Extreme heat – which can lead to heat stroke and amplifies respiratory conditions like asthma, emphysema, and bronchitis – has become the deadliest weather phenomenon. Likewise, storms, floods, and wildfire continue to become more severe and more deadly, water systems have become increasingly contaminated by intense precipitation that lead to harmful runoff, food supplies have decreased due to higher temperatures and extreme weather events, and vector-borne diseases carried and transmitted by insects and other animals have become more widespread.
And these are just a few of the many impacts on our physical health. Our mental and emotional health are also at stake as we lose access to parks and green spaces, and the ability to do things we love in nature – like hiking and cycling – becomes limited due to poor air quality.
It’s time for solutions. And we can start improving the health of our environment and communities with the very people, facilities and hospitals we entrust to keep our bodies healthy: our healthcare industry.
By all measures, our healthcare sector here in the U.S. should be one of the largest champions for environmental responsibility, sustainability, and stewardship. Its sole mission is to maximize health. Instead, it is ironically one of the world’s greatest accelerators of climate change, contributing exponential harm to our planet, our communities, and our bodies – and our personal health and wellbeing.
It’s a shocking contradiction, but the data speak volumes and provide the foundation of our industry self-examination:
- The U.S. healthcare system is responsible for 10% of our country’s total greenhouse gas emissions, 12% of acid rain, 10% of smog formation, and 9% of air pollutants – leading indirectly to anywhere from 44,000 to 98,000 deaths a year. It is also responsible for nearly 7,000 tons of waste every single day.
- The U.S. healthcare sector alone produces nearly 10% of our nation’s total annual carbon emissions, is responsible for 25% of global healthcare greenhouse gas emissions and is the 13th largest producer of carbon dioxide worldwide.
- In 2019, our collective health system’s carbon emissions totaled 3.8 million tons of carbon—that’s the equivalent of driving 815,000 cars or powering 478,000 homes each year.
- And climate changes and extreme weather events are further accelerating our nation’s high levels of healthcare spending. U.S. healthcare costs due to air pollution and climate change already exceed $800 billion per year. This includes the health costs of smog, particulate matter and airborne allergens, vector-borne diseases from ticks and mosquitoes, wildfires and heat-stress related illnesses, food and water contamination, and the health effects from natural disasters.
Clearly, this is a huge problem. And it’s a problem of magnitude that most of my doctor and hospital friends are totally unaware of. But it’s a paradox that – with the right science, the right amount of innovation, and the right people — we can correct course. And we in healthcare have a tremendous responsibility and opportunity to lead this change.
To protect our health, we need to protect and invest in nature. But this is about more than just creating new parks or preserves. And when it comes to healthcare, this requires rethinking years of bad habits to actively and deliberately minimize pollution and waste. It requires transitioning to cleaner, more renewable sources of energy like installing new LED lights and updating energy grids. It requires more mindful practice by physicians to limit the number of overused and unnecessary procedures and tests. And it requires rethinking our supply chains, venders, and moving away from single use products whenever possible in favor of reusable ones. These small, everyday fixes will collectively have a powerful impact on reducing carbon emissions.
Kaiser Permanente is one healthcare organization resetting the standard. In 2020, they become the first carbon neutral healthcare organization in the U.S., meaning that they contribute net-zero carbon emissions each year. To put it in perspective, this decrease in carbon footprint was the equivalent of taking 175,000 cars off our roads annually.
CommonSpirit has also stepped up, pledging to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. Their environmental stewardship model prioritizes new, more energy efficient technologies, working with supply chain organizations to reduce emissions, and investing in climate and environmentally positive practices and policies. Others in healthcare can follow suit and work to create a cultural revolution within healthcare to prioritize environmental responsibility and stewardship.
At the same time, we must also be working to gather accurate data that allow us to more comprehensively understand how the environment, changing weather patterns, and climate impact our mental and physical health as well as what solutions work best. It all starts with self-awareness, within the healthcare sector, followed by thoughtful response and action.
This is an exceptionally challenging task that requires comprehensive, local data infrastructure and research given that many climate effects are large, varied, and unevenly distributed to have the largest influence on the most vulnerable. But, doing so allows for better informed decarbonization efforts and will prompt healthcare systems to more appropriately assess the community and individual health impacts of climate change.
True sustainability means bringing humans into balance with the planet and its resources. We need to start by building a more sustainable, environmentally conscious, responsible, and accountable healthcare sector. The health of our patients and communities depends on it.
Just as we entrust our physicians and healthcare teams to keep our bodies healthy, we must work to hold the healthcare industry accountable for keeping our communities healthy. Thankfully, with a little help, nature, our environment, and our communities are remarkably resilient. And even a small investment in nature can have a tremendous impact on improving the health and wellbeing of generations to come.