In the past few years, the nation has seen a growing number of extreme climate-related events, including devastating wildfires, floods and hurricanes, with severe consequences for healthcare providers from coast to coast. Last week's exceptionally potent plunge of arctic air might be yet another example.
Last fall, several hospitals in the Southeast were hit hard by Hurricane Michael, leading to evacuations and closures, while California's Camp Fire forced a harrowing evacuation of patients from Feather River Hospital in Paradise. The Northeast has also experienced its share of extreme weather. Hurricane Sandy in 2012 demonstrated that hospitals on the East Coast must do much more to prepare for stronger, longer and wetter storms.
Recently released reports, including the sobering Fourth National Climate Assessment or NCA, indicate that the negative impacts of climate change will increase in number and severity, costing lives and disrupting our economy if we do not act quickly. The report also shows that no part of the U.S. will be unaffected and that the most vulnerable members of our society will bear a disproportionate burden of the health impacts of climate change.
Healthcare leaders have both a moral responsibility and a historic opportunity to take action. For the first time, the NCA identified healthcare as a significant contributor to the crisis, noting that the sector accounts for 10% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The environmental footprint of a hospital is vast, including the energy used to power our emergency departments and inpatient towers 24/7, but also water use, food procurement, waste and transportation.
The good news is that solutions to help reduce hospitals' climate impact also promote affordable, high-quality patient care, while generating immediate health benefits for our communities.
Boston Medical Center has acted creatively and is making an impact beyond its own neighborhood. BMC invested in a first-of-its kind partnership that supported building a North Carolina solar farm. It also cut electricity consumption by 42% in the past eight years, with a projected savings of $153 million through 2030. Those are savings that can be put back into patient care. By 2020, BMC expects to be carbon-neutral for all of its energy.
What the most recent NCA also confirms is that a certain amount of planetwide warming is already “baked in,” due to heavy reliance on fossil fuels over the past century. But this doesn't mean that climate action won't yield benefits: Annual health impacts and health-related costs are projected to be approximately 50% less under a lower-emissions scenario. It does mean, however, that hospitals need to prepare by investing in climate-resilient facilities.
Recognizing the new reality, BMC has made hospital and community resilience a high priority. BMC generates much of its own electricity and heat from a 2 megawatt-combined heat and power plant installation, which saves $1.5 million annually in heat and energy costs while creating a more resilient facility that can remain operational if the grid fails. Hospitals nationwide are ramping up a variety of such efforts.
Healthcare's mission includes healing the communities we serve. One encouraging indication that the sector is taking up this charge is the more than 180 participants, representing the interests of more than 17,000 hospitals and health centers in 26 countries, that have pledged to reduce their emissions and prepare for climate impacts by joining the Health Care Climate Challenge. Leading health systems in the U.S. have also joined with BMC in committing to 100% clean electricity—a pledge that should become the new industry standard.
We know from experience that climate action not only safeguards the health of our patients, it also improves employee satisfaction, protects our financial viability and helps foster sustainable, resilient communities. Given the size and scope of the healthcare sector in the U.S. and globally, healthcare leadership has the opportunity to play a major role in mitigating the coming changes.