Healthcare Leaders Dr. Jeff Thompson and Gary Cohen: "Champions" of Fighting Climate Change

Climate change may seem like a divisive policy issue, but after Hurricane Sandy decimated parts of New York City and other areas along the East Coast, the tone of the discussion began to take a turn.

For example, in June, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg laid out a $20 billion plan to protect the metropolis against the effects of climate change. Interestingly, Mayor Bloomberg said hospitals play a key role in the fight. He suggested all new hospitals meet more rigorous flood elevation standards, and by 2030, he wants all existing hospitals retrofitted with better electrical equipment, emergency power systems and domestic water pumps. This announcement came mere weeks before President Barack Obama laid out his plan to fight climate change over the next several years.

For two healthcare leaders, climate change has become a paramount focus, so much so that their efforts have been nationally recognized. In July, the Obama administration honored 11 "Champions of Change." These people, according to the White House, have taken direct measures to cut carbon pollution, protect public health and raise community awareness on the effects of climate change.

Two of those honorees were Jeff Thompson, MD, CEO of Gundersen Health System in La Crosse, Wis., and Gary Cohen, co-founder and president of Health Care Without Harm, Practice Greenhealth and the Healthier Hospitals Initiative. Dr. Thompson's health system is set to be energy independent by next year, and Mr. Cohen has organized more than 600 hospitals and health systems to work together and collaborate on ways to improve environmental health and sustainability. Dr. Thompson and Mr. Cohen recently took some time to share their experiences at the White House event, why sustainability matters in healthcare and how hospitals fit into the climate change dialogue.

Question: I'm sure when you started to get into healthcare sustainability strategies, you thought it may eventually lead to White House honors?

Gary Cohen: That's the hope, right?

Dr. Jeff Thompson: [Laughs] That was the plan! Seriously, any outcome that gets huge, positive recognition for our community is very exciting.

Q: What was the Champion of Change event like, and what does it mean that your organization and health system were represented?

CohenThompsonWhiteHouseGC: Coming two weeks after the president's speech about his climate change strategy, the event represented recognition of healthcare as a powerful frame for climate change. I think polls [show] that the best way to communicate to people about climate is to make a link between extreme weather events and their health and the health of their families. I think the event was recognition of that. The event featured some Obama administration officials talking about the president's climate plan, both from HHS and the Environmental Protection Agency. Eleven different champions were able to make comments on a panel about their work. I spoke about how the healthcare sector was the critical sector to be engaged in addressing climate change.

There are three keys reasons. One, healthcare is on the front lines of the response of extreme weather and other climate-related impacts. Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina — those were major public disasters, and hospitals need to be first responders. In the cases of both Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina, because there was a lack of resilience in the infrastructure of hospitals, the hospitals were also victims of the disaster as opposed to being the last building standing. People haven't planned for climate change in healthcare. That's a big transformation that needs to occur.

Second, healthcare needs to lead by example in terms of a carbon footprint. Healthcare facilities typically use twice as much energy per square foot as offices and schools due to all the equipment they operate 24/7 — so they are large energy hogs. They can lead the effort to become more energy efficient and transition to more renewable energy sources, more local transportation options, more local purchasing — especially around food and cleaning up the supply chain.

Third, hospitals need to be messengers for policies at the local, state, national and even international level. Doctors, nurses and hospital administrators must talk about the need for sensible energy and climate polices that protect the health of our communities. Healthcare should play that role in same way society wanted to kick its addiction to tobacco. "Let's get nurses and doctors to stop first, and then hospitals ban it." That's what we're trying to do here. We are trying to get society to kick our addiction to fossil fuels.

JT: Years ago, you would rarely hear "healthcare" and "climate change" in the same sentence. This event gave us a chance to show how hospitals can move out of that paradigm and how are we are responsible for the health and wellbeing of our community.

The other big piece of this is that we said Gundersen has to do this [energy independence initiative] not as just a project and not just as something that is part of our charitable mission. We have to do this because it is economically sound for us and the community. We've been able to find partners to help us do things that will ultimately save Gunderson energy, which results in fewer charges to patients, which results in fewer charges to employers who pay for [healthcare].

So I think for me, it was very exciting to be with Gary and others who found a way to accomplish things in the face of big obstacles. It was nice that the White House was recognizing us for accomplishing things in our community. I say to my staff, "Plans are nice, but we are here to accomplish things." We were able to show other people there's a way forward, and we had an opportunity to highlight our partnerships with the community. We worked with a lot of different folks to get this accomplished, save money and do what's right for the community. That was a great event to highlight all these people that have done great work, too.

Q: How do you see these types of acknowledgments and efforts influencing hospitals and their public health/sustainability strategies going forward?

GC: Our highest hopes are a couple. One is to grow HHI as a platform to get hospitals all across America addressing their environmental footprint. There's momentum there. Second, in the president's climate action plan, there is a call for a public-private partnership to work with America's hospitals about the environment and sustainability. We hope to partner with the administration to drive this agenda throughout the healthcare sector. That would be a win.

JT: Whenever someone gets recognized the White House or other reputable organizations, other people look and say, "How'd they do that? Why'd they do that?" And then they start connecting the dots. We've certainly had a lot of inquires from people. Every time one of us — Gundersen or HHI — gets recognized or shows how this is what's best for the community, patients and the organization, it increases the chances others will get involved. The Wisconsin Hospital Association just joined HHI to make it easier for members in Wisconsin to participate. My hope is that there is a ripple effect.

There are plenty of things we need to fix in healthcare. You just don't do this, and you're done. You still have to hit quality targets, increase patient satisfaction, cut costs — this is just a piece of that puzzle.

More Articles on Hospitals and Environmental Sustainability:
Healthier Hospitals Initiative Backs Obama's Climate Plan
4 Reasons Why Sustainability Investments Are Vital to Hospital Finance Strategies
Hospitals Gradually Moving Toward Healthier Food Environments

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