Gary Cohen, a noted environmental health advocate, has been named one of 24 MacArthur fellows by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Cohen, 59, is co-founder and president of Health Care Without Harm, a coalition of healthcare organizations, unions and environmental health advocates in over 50 countries that are dedicated to curbing industry practices that pollute the environment and contribute to disease.
The MacArthur Foundation, one of the largest not-for-profit foundations in the U.S., funds projects and people who work to create a “a more just, verdant and peaceful world.”
The efforts of Cohen and HCWH led to the virtual elimination of mercury in thermometers and other medical devices in the U.S. and a global treaty to eliminate its use by 2020. The group also successfully pushed for reducing carcinogen-emitting waste incinerators in the U.S., from 5,600 in the late 1990s to fewer than 70 in 2006.
“I think the award is an acknowledgement that as a society we need to move healthcare upstream to address the social and environmental conditions that are making people sick in the first place,” Cohen said in an interview. “All these environmental conditions have to be changed if we want to support healthy people, and I think the foundation is helping to recognize that and helping to shine a spotlight on that.”
Through the Healthy Hospital Initiative, a platform that helps hospitals purchase safer chemicals, healthy food and energy efficient technology, and Practice Greenhealth, a membership and best practices organization, Cohen has further pushed hospitals to engage in sustainable practices to minimize their contribution to global climate change.
“Cohen is repositioning environmentally conscious healthcare as prudent, cost-effective, and easily within reach,” the foundation wrote in his fellow biography.
"For 20 years, Gary has driven toward a compelling vision of a healthy environment," said Ray Baxter, Kaiser Permanente senior vice president of Community Benefit, Research and Health Policy, in a statement. "His genius is his ability to partner with the healthcare sector as the leading advocates for change."
Though major environmental commitments still tend to be something that makes systems like Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser Permanente or La Crosse, Wis.-based Gundersen Health System stand out, Cohen believes health systems will have to embrace the concept of environmetal health within the next 10 years if they wish to adequately manage patient populations. He also said medical and public health schools are going to have to put a bigger emphasis on educating future physicians and healthcare leaders on environmental health issues.
“I think within the next decade we'll see a huge transformation in the healthcare sector where addressing the social and environmental needs of patients will become standard,” Cohen said. “We're going to go bankrupt otherwise.”
As a part of the fellowship program, each awardee receives a $625,000 stipend that is paid out over five years. Members of this year's class work in the arts, sciences, technology and community-building, including some healthcare leaders like Memorial Sloan-Kettering stem cell biologist Lorenz Studer and Harvard neuroscientist Beth Stevens.
Cohen expects to use some of the money to take a much-needed sabbatical to think about the future of his organizations. Cohen said he'll work to determine how best to scale the organizations' recommendations as standard practice throughout the country and throughout the world.
A Practice Greenhealth spokeswoman said in a statement that Cohen has been “a voice for pushing the boundaries of environmental sustainability for over three decades” and said the organization is excited to see how he'll further his advocacy efforts.
“At both Practice Greenhealth and Health Care Without Harm, he has worked across the healthcare sector to help a resource-intensive industry successfully reduce emissions, use fewer toxic substances and serve more sustainable, local food,” the spokeswoman said. “We're so thrilled that he will be able to amplify this work through the MacArthur genius grant."