Hospitals must prepare for climate change

Dianne Anderson
By Dianne Anderson
For business

Hospitals must prepare for the looming climate crisis.

Environmental experts continue to warn that more needs to be done to stall the worsening climate crisis, and quickly. If significant changes to energy consumption habits are not implemented soon, humans will face severe environmental threats not unlike the threat of extinction facing one million other species. Hospitals will need to prepare for the future climate crisis, too.

In August, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration revealed the earth experienced its hottest month ever in recorded history. Additionally, the Arctic is melting at a rapid rate. As the earth warms, experts predict a 26% increased chance of armed conflict and related rise in flesh eating bacteria, growth of diseases such as Zika, and fast-spreading red algae blooms.

Climate change strain ahead for public health systems?

These predictions are just as foreboding for hospitals that fail to strengthen their renewable energy infrastructure and prepare for overflow from climate change emergencies. Ill-equipped or unprepared hospitals likely will be subject to long energy shortages and blackouts.

Earlier this year, legislators introduced the Climate Change Health Protection and Promotion Act of 2019, calling for technical support and for health departments to develop an action plan. Among other goals, this plan seeks to establish community outreach, track environmental and disease data, enhance tracking capacity for infectious diseases and develop coordinated research and a preparedness agenda on the climate and public health.

In response to HR 1243, Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, stated the need to prepare for worsening health impacts from air pollution, droughts, wildfires and more frequent and intense heat waves.

“This important legislation would further enhance our understanding of the health threats posed by climate change and improve support for our state and local public health workforce to ensure they have the tools, resources and information they need to protect their communities from these growing public health threats,” Dr. Benjamin states.

Late last year, scientists with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned the world has approximately 12 years to slow global warming or breach a critical climate change threshold.

Historically, scientists have refrained from releasing alarming predictions, but that appears to have changed. Many experts say they have previously underestimated the urgency of the situation, and global warming is accelerating faster than earlier projections.

By the end of this century, Georgetown University Medical Center projects that one billion people are at risk of being infected with diseases such as Dengue Fever, regardless of whether they live in mosquito-infested areas or not. High risk populations are projected in Europe, with increases in eastern Africa and the northern Andes. The United States and Canada may also face longer seasons of transmissions. Mosquitoes are responsible for one of about a dozen emerging diseases expected to intensify in the next 50 years.

Better hospital infrastructure to withstand extreme weather

It’s not too late to reverse these bleak predictions. Currently, the future depends on getting lawmakers informed on proactive policies to avoid the potential for a damaging public health crisis.

Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) is working on it. HCWH is an international non-governmental organization looking to spotlight the public health dimension of the debate that includes mitigation and calls for the health sector to reduce its carbon impact and implement low carbon health care delivery.

Dr. Sarah Spengeman, associate director of the HCWH Climate and Health Program in the U.S. and Canada, explains that communities typically look to hospitals to be the last building standing in cases of extreme weather.

“As the frequency and severity of these events increases due to climate change, it is imperative that hospitals assess their vulnerabilities and harden their infrastructure so they can continue to serve the patients and communities who depend on them,” Spengeman adds.

Health issues connected to climate change are on the rise, with future impacts to include increased respiratory problems, cardiovascular disease, premature deaths related to extreme weather events, water-borne illnesses and other infectious diseases.

HCWH is calling for hospitals to adapt their infrastructure and service delivery to protect and meet the needs of the community against new safety threats when extreme weather strikes.

While testifying before Congress, HCWH stated, “For example, investments in energy efficiency improvements in the U.S. building sector will reduce demand on the power grid, reducing pollution and making it less likely hospitals will lose power during periods of extreme heat or cold. Similarly, investments in battery storage for renewable energy and microgrids will help manage times of peak power demand, and allow hospitals to provide care to their communities in the face of grid disruption.”

Dianne Anderson covers education, health, and city government stories with an eye on legislative impacts to diverse communities. She has received awards from the American Cancer Society – Inland Empire, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Over the years, she has reported for the Long Beach Leader and the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin and been a contributor to the Pasadena Weekly.

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