Greenhouse gas emissions are resulting in increasingly dangerous environmental events and public health consequences — and are leading to a growing awakening of medical professionals and providers. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), climate change has a range of complex health impacts, including temperature-related illness and death, injuries and illnesses due to extreme weather events, the spread of infectious disease vectors, increases in water borne illnesses, and wide-ranging impacts from air pollution.
A recent study by ABT Associates in Massachusetts found that among respiratory problems alone, coal and oil fired power plants in the state are responsible for 441 premature deaths, 313 hospitalizations, 8,880 asthma attacks, and approximately 78,000 lost work days. The WHO estimates that climate change is already contributing to 150,000 deaths per year.
In addition, a May 2009 article in The Lancet medical journal concluded, "Health impacts will be disproportionately greater in vulnerable populations", including the very young, the elderly and the medically infirm. The article goes on to state that "the health sector can play a key role in helping societies adapt to the effects of climate change and the risk it poses to human health" (The Lancet Vol 373 May 16, 2009).
Health professionals are going to be on the front lines of any climate-related disaster, responding to public health impacts. Overall, the need to treat illness and disease due to climate-related changes in our environment will continue to increase. At the same time, the healthcare industry will experience the climate crisis in its own operations, characterized by dramatically increasing energy costs, projected instability in the electric service provision grid, and intensified stressors placed on community health services, especially in times of disaster. On a direct financial level, energy costs are already squeezing operating margins and hijacking monies needed for other critical healthcare issues — many of which will only worsen due to future climate change.
In order to avert this coming crisis, it is crucial that the health sector develop an educated, effective voice in the climate policymaking process. Clinicians are recognized as trusted experts on health-related issues, not only in the doctor's office, but in society as well. To participate in this debate effectively, health professionals need to fully understand the science, be able to critically analyze real policy options, and express the health benefits of addressing climate change in concise, powerful terms that politicians will hear and act upon. Health system leaders can also derive powerful motivation from successful efforts to clean up their own house.
The U.S. EPA estimates that 30% of the healthcare sector's current energy use — or $1.95 billion — could be reduced without sacrificing quality of care through a shift toward energy efficiency and renewable energy sources. International studies echo this conclusion, and show that roughly equivalent European hospitals consume half the energy of their U.S. and Canadian counterparts. Preliminary work that we have done shows that the direct medical expense associated with Boston health facility emissions is more than $2.4 million annually, in addition to $23 million in indirect societal costs for premature deaths, chronic bronchitis, asthma, and more. The inherent irony in this data can create huge leverage on a sector sworn to 'do no harm.'