Healthcare systems pledge action against climate change

BOSTON — It’s an industry tasked with maintaining wellness, but it turns out the healthcare sector, worldwide, is a major contributor to climate change -- and thus to the negative health effects caused by rising temperatures and extreme weather.

“A percentage of this is due to the energy used to power, heat, and cool our facilities,” said Gregg Furie, MD, medical director of Climate and Sustainability at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “I would estimate it to be a fifth of our total contribution.”

The other 80 percent, Furie said, comes from the products, pharmaceuticals and other items hospitals purchase to provide services to patients.

Taken together, that adds up to a hefty portion of the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that is trapping solar heat.

“The healthcare sector contributes globally about five percent of total greenhouse gas emissions,” Furie said.

In the United States, he said it’s closer to 8.5 percent.

But last week, the industry made a move to reduce its carbon footprint. More than 50 nations pledged to the World Health Organization to cut healthcare-associated greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years.

Furie said some of the easier ways to do this include improving the energy efficiency of hospital buildings, switching to clean, renewable energy sources and expanding telehealth options so as to keep more vehicles headed to hospitals off the road. But because the bulk of emissions associated with healthcare don’t come directly from hospitals, other players -- including drug companies and other manufacturers -- would need to cooperate, too.

But that’s where patients can make a real impact.

By maintaining a normal weight, exercising regularly, and not smoking, patients are far less likely to need medical interventions -- each one of which expands a hospital’s carbon output.

“We could effectively try to keep people out of the hospital,” Furie said. “We know that delivering healthcare services contributes so much to our environmental impact. And if we can reduce that by keeping people healthy in the first place that would go a long way to reducing our overall contribution to climate change.”

One difficult area for hospitals, in the quest to reduce emissions: their reliance on paper and plastic products tossed after one use.

“Unfortunately, I think that the healthcare system has increasingly moved to single-use disposable items,” Furie said. “But recognizing the impact that that’s having on the environment and consequently human health, I think there is a movement to try to shift back to reusable products in the hospital wherever possible.”

Furie said the reuse of certain products or devices is safe because hospitals follow a formal, regulatory process for reintroduction.

The move by the global healthcare sector to clean up its carbon dioxide act comes after the United States experienced its hottest summer on record -- hotter, even than the famous ‘Dust Bowl’ summer of 1936. It also follows months of wild weather in the U.S. which included tornado outbreaks, tropical systems, and intense rain and wind storms on both coasts.

Furie said extreme weather is already leading to negative health effects. Part of his job is to get clinicians to recognize that increases in heat-related illnesses or asthma exacerbations are signs climate change is here. The question is, can it be slowed or stopped?

“The science is clear that we’re running out of time,” Furie said. “And in the absence of really aggressive action right now. we’re going to miss our chance to minimize the risk and damage due to global climate change.”