The pope issued a 184-page encyclical letter Tuesday urging citizens around the globe to address climate change. The leading voice for the nation's Roman Catholic health systems said it's “pretty much inexcusable” for healthcare providers to not advocate for sustainability.
Pope Francis' letter was a damning criticism of the way humans have treated their environment and called for a change of attitudes and actions to reduce humans' contribution to climate change.
“We have come to see ourselves as (Mother Earth's) lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will,” Francis said. “The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.”
Francis called on all individuals, especially politicians and business leaders, to advocate for better treatment of the ecosystem by lessening pollution from fossil fuels and conserving water, among many other recommendations.
Sister Carol Keehan, CEO of the Catholic Health Association, praised the pope's initiative, noting that Catholic health ministries have learned firsthand the harmful effects climate change can have on public health.
“I think that this is an incredible gift, not only to the Catholics of the world but to all the people of the world,” Keehan said. “There is no question that there are horrible consequences for the way we're treating the planet, and the Holy Father points these out.”
Especially as health systems become responsible for the communities they serve through value-based care, it's important that they take responsibility for treating their environment with care, for the sake of their patients' health, she said. Hospital operations are often very demanding on energy and water supplies.
“It's one thing when you have a disease that we can't prevent,” Keehan said. “But when we allow pollutants and contaminants, and we don't advocate for clean waters and for a clean environment ... we actually have a responsibility to not only cure things we can cure, but if you can prevent someone from ever getting a sickness and you don't do it, you know what? That's pretty much inexcusable.”
Francis wrote that some forms of pollution are a part of “people's daily experience” and create health hazards that disproportionately affect the poor, who often work in high-polluting industries. The poor are also often served by faith-based healthcare organizations.
The CHA has published several reports on hospitals' responsibility toward the environment, and in 2008 the organization received a grant to work with advocacy groups to share best practices on sustainability among hospitals, according to Keehan. A couple of years ago, the organization worked with member hospitals to distribute a prayer card that had tips on how patients can reduce their environmental impact at home.
Keehan expressed particular concern at the effect disposable instruments and supplies can have on the environment, and noted that CHA members have worked together to determine how to “recapture, recycle and reuse” products in other ways.
The pope acknowledged that climate denial comes “even on the part of believers,” and political conservatism isn't uncommon among Catholics. But Keehan said that healthcare providers can't deny the effects of climate change on their patients' health, because they see it firsthand.
“I think our members deal with the negative impact of climate change so often that we're not a place where you find the deniers,” Keehan said. “They're not in healthcare. You can't be in healthcare and look at the health of the people we serve and say this is no big deal.”