Although Earth Month is over, the effect of its celebrations serves as a call to action for health care organizations to mitigate their negative environmental impact and prioritize environmental sustainability. And this energy is increasingly being matched at a policy level—to date, at least 45 countries have committed to reforms that will increase the environmental sustainability and lower the emissions of their health systems.
However, many of these efforts are phrased in ways that leave room for interpretation. For health care stakeholders, diagnosing the problem and making progress can be difficult when there is little clarity on what competencies "environmental sustainability" encompasses and how to sort the signal from the noise. We've compiled a non-exhaustive glossary of terms for health care stakeholders to conceptualize "environmental sustainability" and its components in order to make progress.
- Environmental sustainability: Responsible interaction with the planet and its resources to support health and wellbeing now and in the future.
- Environmentally sustainable health care delivery: Health care delivery that intentionally incorporates practices that reduce health care services' environmental impact and addresses environmental determinants of health.
- Environmental health: Branch of public health that monitors and mitigates environmental factors that affect human health and disease.
- Environmental determinants of health: Environmental factors that impact the risk and experience of disease. These factors include air pollution, built environments that discourage physical activity, drinking water contamination, and occupational exposures.
- Carbon neutral: Ensuring that an organization's carbon emissions are net zero by reducing or offsetting carbon emissions
With a firmer grip of the terminology, health care organizations wishing to act may still struggle to define their own problems and their role in solving them. To help organizations get started, we've created a list of questions that executives can bring to board meetings to initiate conversations on climate action and environmental sustainability.
- What does "environmental sustainability" mean to us and our health care organization?
- Is environmental sustainability a priority for our health care organization? If not, why?
- If yes, how are we elevating this as an enterprise-wide priority?
- Which enterprise-wide goals and key performance indicators can environmental sustainability initiatives help us with?
- What has our healthcare organization done to become more environmentally sustainable?
- Did these efforts come from top-down or grassroots efforts?
- If our organization has not pursued any major projects or initiatives, what could our organization feasibly work towards in the near-term (e.g., creating a plan for climate emergencies, creating green space and increasing biodiversity within your facility footprint, introducing a sustainable waste management system)?
- Which regional stakeholders or partners can help us plan environmental sustainability initiatives and/or accomplish our goals?
- How, if at all, has our health care organization been impacted by the lack of environmental sustainability efforts from other actors in our region, including regulators and businesses?
- What local environmental sustainability efforts are already taking place that our organization can support or tap into?
- Is meaningful environmental sustainability progress a priority for our staff and patients? If so, how can we involve them in planning and execution?
Health care organizations have historically shied away from acting against climate change. However, it's important to remember that climate change will not only adversely impact your patients' health, but it will also impact your bottom line in a multitude of different ways. It is therefore important for organizations to act to prevent the negative health impacts on their patients and ensure their business remains in good standing.
It is vital for all stakeholders to open up these conversations if the health care sector is to reduce its significant impact on the environment. And asking these types of questions may be the start to ensuring that your organization is prepared for oncoming climate challenges.