Climate change puts healthcare in harm’s way

Worsening climate change means more intense, frequent extreme weather events – and more disruptions to healthcare delivery.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that the yearly average for U.S. extreme weather events costing over $1 billion has shot up from a historic 5.5 to 10.5 events per year between 2012 and 2016. By April, five extreme weather events have caused the deaths of 37 people in 2017 alone.

When a hurricane, flood or other extreme weather event hits, Americans expect hospitals to remain functional and handle increased intake. Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy are vivid reminders of how vulnerable to extreme weather our U.S. healthcare infrastructure is.

When the New Orleans levee system failed during Katrina, hospitals lost power, communications, and water/sewage service; and could not replenish supplies of medicines, blood, linens, food and other essentials. Widespread infrastructure failure impelled mass evacuations and shut down hospitals, overwhelming healthcare services across the Gulf Coast.

In New York, Superstorm Sandy caused infrastructure failure that shut down major hospitals. NYU’s Langone Medical Center evacuated 300 patients – 20 babies in neonatal intensive care and the sickest adults -- when a backup generator in the basement was knocked out. Coney Island Hospital’s electrical switch room was inundated with floodwater, forcing evacuation of 260 patients. In Manhattan, Bellevue Hospital took over 10 weeks to reopen.

Katrina and Sandy taught hard lessons on evacuation strategies, infrastructure vulnerabilities, and building resilience. In New Orleans, the new University Medical Center can withstand 200-mph debris, and its emergency-department equipment is housed on the second floor, above flood level. In Boston, Partners HealthCare has built one of the most resilient hospitals in the country to withstand a Category 3 hurricane and major storm surges.

But preparing their institutions for extreme weather events isn’t all hospital administrators and healthcare professionals can do to protect their community’s health against global warming. The healthcare sector itself is a major culprit, producing 8% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. This fact has led Kaiser Permanente, the nation’s largest integrated health system, to pledge to become carbon net- positive by 2025 and to reduce its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 30% between 2008 and 2020. Healthcare systems across America should view eliminating fossil fuel reliance as core to their healing mission, and make similar pledges. Healthcare’s costly, frontline struggle with losses, illness and injury from toxic exposures and destructive, extreme weather unmasks the real cost of fossil fuel addiction.

Government support is crucial, so healthcare providers must also bring their frontline struggle to lawmakers. That’s why Hackensack University Medical Center recently participated in a day of climate and clean energy advocacy meetings on Capitol Hill. If hospitals are to stand against extreme weather onslaughts, facilities must develop specific climate risk plans and learn how a changing climate impacts community health. A toolkit from the Department of Health and Human Services is available, but on-site implementation takes strong federal support. Our nation also must honor our commitment to the Paris Agreement and reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 28% below the 2005 level by 2025. This reduction requires simply moving forward with the Clean Power Plan, stronger fuel efficiency standards for automobiles, the Methane Waste Rule and investment in solar and wind power.

Reducing emissions that fuel global warming and extreme weather is a matter of basic health for humans and the living planet we depend on. We do not have to be helpless in the face of life-threatening, billions-wasting hazards. We can reduce much avoidable disease and injury, boost the economy with clean energy, and leave a healthy home planet for our grandchildren with one prescription: Break our addiction to fossil fuels.

Kyle Tafuri is the Senior Sustainability Advisor at the Hackensack University Medical Center and Richard Eidlin is Vice President of Policy and Co-founder of the American Sustainable Business Council.

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