The Lancet report identifies climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions as a main culprit in cardiovascular and respiratory disease (spurred by air and ozone pollution), and notes that the collapse of ecosystems and the loss of biodiversity has resulted in malnutrition and the spread of vector-borne illnesses.
But that's not all.
The overarching impact of a changing climate could also be detrimental for other reasons indirectly related to health. For instance, floods, droughts, and heatwaves could result in loss of habitation, conflict, poverty, and mass migration, among other things.
The study authors say health care leaders must focus the same level of attention and resources on combatting climate change as they do to addressing public health threats like HIV/AIDS and smoking.
"Hospitals are in a unique position to help address and prepare for the impact of climate change on public health," says Advisory Board consultant Patrick Testa, noting that providers should use their influence to "jumpstart local initiatives that confront the upstream causes of disease and create greener, more sustainable communities."
Not just a health issue
Doing so could be good both for the community and for an organization's bottom line. Advisory Board research shows that the health care industry could save as much as $15 billion over the next 10 years simply by adopting more sustainable practices.
That’s why the health care industry should take the lead in reducing its carbon footprint, says Testa. "Investing in energy-efficient systems, adopting renewable energy sources, and using environmentally-friendly building materials," are just a few ways hospitals can assert themselves as sustainability leaders, he stated. "These measures not only cut greenhouse emissions, but potentially save providers millions in energy costs over the lifecycle of a facility."
Some health systems are leading the charge for change.
For instance, in October 2014, Gunderson Health System became the first health system to create more energy than it uses, saving $2 million per year in energy costs. It did so via three main efforts:
- Developing a data center to determine the most efficient uses of energy;
- Building wind turbines to create and sell power to the local grid; and
- Generating heat and electricity out of methane gas from a local landfill.
And earlier this year, Kaiser Permanente made the largest clean energy purchase in health care, signing three contracts to buy electricity from wind- and sun-powered electricity plants to reduce carbon emissions at its health care facilities.
Stillerman says the benefits of energy efficiency investments are "essentially risk-free, requiring only the initial investment dollars." He also notes that facility-related changes "avoid the need for staff buy-in and behavior modification," which can make them easier to implement.
The takeaway: A changing climate—and a progressing health care industry landscape—has left the door open for hospitals to take charge in reducing their carbon footprint and investing in more sustainable practices.
Three reasons sustainability can't wait
Historically, when it comes to sustainable practices, the health care industry has lagged behind due to a lack of environmental expertise, difficulty in altering established processes, and safety concerns.
But research has shown that going green a moral must that can't be ignored. And it can actually help the industry capitalize on cost savings.
Our research team spoke with executives and sustainability directors at 68 institutions to understand how sustainability programs have developed across the past decade and how top hospital decision makers are thinking about sustainability