On this Earth Day, we can't help but reflect on the interconnectedness of climate change and Covid-19.
The rise in global temperatures has altered ecosystems such that zoonotic infectious diseases, such as SARS-COV-2, are more likely to emerge and be transmitted to humans. Moreover, exposure to air pollution has been linked to poorer outcomes and death in Covid-19 patients. And during the pandemic, extreme weather events, such as the Texas winter storm, left citizens coping with hypothermia and unsanitary water. The resulting power outages complicated at home Covid-19 recovery for those unable to power their oxygen equipment.
As evidence of the impact of climate change on our health grows, it is increasingly clear that hospitals and health systems need to be prepared for other climate-influenced health events. With this in mind, here are four lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic that health systems can use to prepare for the inevitable impacts of climate change.
Take a prominent role in educating patients. Disinformation campaigns about Covid-19 vaccines have caused confusion and mistrust in the health care system. In response, health systems have made it their responsibility to provide accurate information about the safety and efficacy of vaccines. For example, several health systems have created easily available resources, such as Dartmouth's "Vaccine Myths" page, to decrease vaccine hesitancy by providing targeted, trustworthy information to the community.
Similarly, health systems can educate communities on how the environment influences human health and ways to decrease health risks. In an effort to address that goal, Intermountain developed a guide for providers to counsel vulnerable patients (including pregnant women and adults with cardiovascular diseases) in reducing their exposure to hazardous pollutants. As climate change becomes a larger threat to individual health and safety, we would argue that health systems will again be required to fill the role of community educator.
Build and maintain trust with marginalized populations for the health of the entire community. Communities of color, individuals with chronic health conditions, and people of lower socioeconomic status are bearing the brunt of the current pandemic. Likewise, these populations are also most susceptible to health risks as a result of climate impacts. As part of the Covid-19 response, health systems have partnered with community organizations to foster relationships with vulnerable populations. For example, Parkland Health and Hospital System aims to reduce health inequity in its vaccination effort by working with local churches and community centers that serve predominantly minority populations. Similarly, health systems should collaborate with community organizations to improve health care access for those populations most likely to have their health impacted by climate change.
Leverage technology to benefit community members and the health system. At the beginning of the pandemic, hospitals and health systems quickly turned to technology to provide virtual care. The adoption of virtual care improved access to health care services, decreased infectious exposures, and educated patients. Telemedicine programs also reduce health systems' environmental footprint. Referring patients to telehealth minimizes carbon emissions from travel and decreases the use of resource-intensive services, such as emergency room visits and elective admissions.
Be prepared when the next disaster strikes. Covid-19 is a reminder that building a resilient hospital or health system is paramount to handling unprecedented challenges like climate change. For instance, to avoid the supply chain inefficiencies seen at the beginning of the pandemic, health systems can proactively create relationships with back-up suppliers and include supplier disruption in disaster-preparation drills. Similarly, health systems need to prepare for future climate change events before they take place. In anticipation of rising sea levels, Partners Healthcare built a climate-conscious facility on the Boston waterfront. The site includes a first floor that is 30 inches above the 500-year flood mark and energy-efficient features to minimize hospital damage and retain operational functionality if severe flooding occurs. Including these features contributed to only 1.5% of the total building cost.