Vital Signs Blog

Climate change will overwhelm U.S. healthcare system, report warns

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Health experts warn that despite years of effort toward improving emergency preparedness when disasters occur, the country's health system as a whole would find itself overwhelmed if required to address the full effects of climate change on public health.

An expected increase in the number of excessively hot days as well as a rise in the frequency of natural disasters will put heavy strain on hospitals and emergency departments who will see an influx of patients as a result of such occurrences.

Such were the findings of a report released Tuesday by the Risky Business Project, a bipartisan group of former public leaders and business professionals that include former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.

The report warns the financial impact of climate change to the nation's economy would be in the billions in property damage, loss productivity, medical expenditures and mortality.

“With this report, we call on the American business community to rise to the challenge and lead the way in helping reduce climate risks,” the report stated. “This is only a first step, but it's a step toward getting America on a new path leading to a more secure, more certain economic future.”

Public health in particular will be at risk, warned the report, which examined the impact of the effects of heat stress on the population and the health system. More than 8,000 emergency department visits that occurred in 2009 and 2010 were from heat stroke, the report found, resulting in an annual incident rate of 1.3 visits per 100,000 people.

By 2050, the annual average number of days where temperatures will reach 95F or above is expected to rise to as many as 50, three times the average of hot days seen over the past 30 years, according to the report. By century's end, the number of days over 95 degrees could reach as high as 96.

The results echo many of the findings detailed in the federal government's National Climate Assessment released last month.

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That report concluded climate change will have a particularly negative impact for the millions of Americans living with chronic health conditions and is likely to cause a surge in emergency department visits and hospital utilization, which the health system is not able to handle, said Dr. Alfred Sommer, professor of Epidemiology, Ophthalmology and International Health, and Dean Emeritus of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Sommer serves in an advisory role as a member of the Risky Business Project Risk Committee.

“We have absolutely no surge capacity left in our (health) system,” Sommer said. “We are going to get this perfect storm of reduced capacity to deal with sudden large bad events, and we are going to get sudden, bad events at a much greater likelihood and frequency than we do now.”

The effects of such adverse weather events will be felt the hardest among the most vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, the very young, the disabled and low-income communities who don't have the resources to move to other, less volatile regions, Sommer said.

The report is one of a number of analyses produced in recent years that attempts to convey the effects of climate change on a more personal level. The National Climate Assessment put a $6.5 billion a year price tag on healthcare related to hospital admissions for lung-related conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma caused by the combination of rising temperatures and the emission of carbon dioxide.

A 2011 study published in the journal Health Affairs examined the health costs associated with six types of extreme weather and disease events between 2002 through 2009. It estimated that events occurring within that period accounted for a total of more than 760,000 encounters with the healthcare system at a cost totaling more than $14 billion.

Follow Steven Ross Johnson on Twitter: @MHsjohnson


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