President Barack Obama declared this to be Public Health Week and simultaneously decreed that climate change—particularly due to its role in triggering asthma attacks and other respiratory problems—is one of the largest public health threats the nation faces.
“America's public health is deeply tied to the health of our environment,” the president's declaration stated. “In the past three decades, the percentage of Americans with asthma has more than doubled, and climate change is putting these individuals and many other vulnerable populations at greater risk of landing in the hospital.”
The healthcare industry is often criticized for being behind the times, but it appears to have been ahead of the curve on recognizing the impact the environment can have on health. One of the leaders on this issue has been Kaiser Permanente, the giant Oakland, Calif.-based integrated health system.
In May 2013, Kaiser committed to having it all of its new hospitals achieve gold certification in the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, program. The program recognizes environmentally friendly construction and sustainable operations. Kaiser took this one step further this past February when it declared that half of its energy supply would come from renewable sources.
Likewise, La Crosse, Wis.-based Gundersen Health System became energy-neutral last October—meaning it's producing more energy than it consumes. Gundersen also announced that it would freeze all future fossil-fuel-related investments.
“We've made a commitment to renewable sources of energy that are both sustainable and lower the level of harmful emissions,” Mike Allen, Gundersen's chief financial officer, told Modern Healthcare. “It's walking the talk. Every little bit counts.”
The president, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy participated in a roundtable discussion on the health effects of global warming April 7 at Howard University in Washington.
The president praised a new Howard program that trains students to deal with the health effects of climate change, which include more and more severe incidences of asthma.
“Potentially, as temperatures rise, we're going to start seeing insect-borne diseases that are not traditional to North America start moving up from the South,” Obama said. “There are a whole host of public health impacts that are going to hit home.”
Climate change will lead to longer and hotter heat waves and more smog and ozone in urban air, Murthy said. He predicted earlier springs and longer summers leading to longer allergy seasons and more days missed from school and work as more environmental factors exist to trigger respiratory problems and “scary moments” for children and parents.
(Murthy will be answering questions on the issue Thursday posed via Twitter with the hashtag #AskTheSurgeonGeneral.)
The best way to deal with these problems is to keep climate change from getting worse, he said.
“The underlying principle of public health is prevention,” Murthy explained. “Prevention really is our goal.”
It's a message that physicians have been sending for years.
The American Medical Association House of Delegates approved a report at its 2008 annual meeting that outlined the dangers cited by Obama and Murthy this week.
“The potential exists for devastating events with serious health implications, including extreme heat and cold events, flooding and droughts, increases in vectors carrying infectious diseases, and increases in air pollution,” the AMA report stated. “The health effects from these events should be of concern to the medical community and require action.”
The AMA delegates acknowledged that they were not the first group to this party. The American Academy of Pediatrics had already sounded the alarm on climate change and public health.
“The American Academy of Pediatrics has specifically called for pediatricians to become more aware of the links between child health and global climate change and to educate their patients on how they can mitigate the effects of global warming,” the AMA report stated. “In addition, the AAP asks doctors to advocate for several climate change policies that would improve children's health. These include increasing green space, supporting public transportation, and advocating that local organizations and businesses reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
In the November 2007 issue of its Pediatrics journal, the AAP gave its members several orders.
“Advocate for comprehensive local and national policies that address climate change to improve the health of children now and in the future,” urged an AAP policy statement on climate change. “Educate elected officials on the health risks to children from climate change; write letters to the editor, attend public meetings, or provide expert testimony. Work with local schools, child-care centers, community organizations, and businesses on projects that will help reduce (greenhouse gasses). Support policies to expand parks and green spaces, strengthen public transport, improve sidewalks and bicycle lanes, and create local award systems for energy-efficient businesses, buildings, organizations, and households.”
It took more than seven years for the message to reach the top of the federal government.