How public health departments and providers can partner to mitigate climate change

Q+A Dr. Georges Benjamin, Executive Director, American Public Health Association

For many years, the American Public Health Association (APHA), which represents public health professionals across the nation, has advocated for greater awareness of the negative impacts of climate change on communities, declaring it a health emergency. In this conversation with Modern Healthcare Custom Media, Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of APHA, explains the important role public health departments must play in reducing the impacts of climate change and the opportunity for hospitals and health systems to partner with them going forward.

What role should public health departments play in addressing the impact of climate change?

Our members have always understood the critical relationship between people and our ecosystem, particularly our environment. We believe that the health officer in any community is the chief health strategist for that community, which means they are the conductor of efforts to improve health. At the national level, you have the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has a climate health program and is in the process of educating and empowering state and local health departments to improve their health. State public health departments such as California and New York are looking at actions they can take around climate and health that we think are very important. We at the APHA are training health officials at both the state and local level, giving them the tools to be able to talk about the causes of climate change and then to convert the energy they use to green energy.

How would you respond to public health departments that claim they don’t have the resources to take on such a massive challenge like climate change?

I would argue that a lot of the messages that we give in public health are holistic. On a “Code Red” day, when it’s too hot and the air quality is very poor, the public health department is already going to be involved with educating the public, particularly advising the community not to be outside for too long. Adding climate change to that message is a simple addition.

“COVID taught us that we are locked at the hip with the health systems in our communities.”

I understand that we’re overwhelmed and we’re always juggling, but this is the greatest health threat that we have over the next several years.

If we’re serious about helping people become healthier and avoiding serious disease, we have to address this.

We just experienced hurricane season, and Puerto Rico got slammed again. Tennessee and Missouri just had severe floods. Flooding of course happens, but the intensity is increasing. The health department is having to respond to these issues. They must add climate change to their response effort. They must be more involved so that we mitigate these impacts of climate change. They also should be working to improve community resilience. It’s essential.

What opportunities do you see for public health departments and providers, such as hospitals and health systems, to partner?

COVID taught us that we are locked at the hip with the health systems in our communities. I believe there’s an important partnership there. Both the public health official as well as the head of the hospital system need to meet on a regular basis. They need to collaborate on the community benefit efforts and the leading problems in their community. Climate change will continue to arise as one of those leading problems, so there’s an enormous opportunity for them to collaborate in a variety of ways. And it is already happening. You see places like Kaiser Permanente working not only within the health system but also with the health departments in their region. We’re seeing a fair amount of this happening in New York City. And of course, all those communities that have been impacted by hurricanes, floods and wildfires are up to their elbows in this every day. And so, they’re having to work with the local providers.

What role will community health organizations play in diminishing climate change impacts?

One of their major roles is activating the community, both to educate them and to get them involved in decision making. Inviting community members to come in and testify at public hearings around zoning, response times and improving access to clean water and safe air — all of those things involve community organizations at the grassroots level to be engaged. (Groups such as) churches, YMCAs and Boys and Girls Clubs of America are already involved in engaging communities on a range of activities to improve the community, so adding climate to that should be an easy step. The health department is also a neutral place where you can bring those groups together.

Can you talk about what success regarding this issue looks like to APHA?

Success for us is a dramatic reduction in our nation’s utilization of fossil fuel, where every citizen is thinking on a proactive basis about how they can continue to reduce their carbon footprint, how they can reduce their use of energy and what they can do to use more green energy. We’d also like to see communities be more walkable, bikeable and green, and to do that in a way that’s just and fair. Lower income communities spend a lot more of their income on energy, and I would love to see efforts to balance that equation so that their energy usage is less, their costs are less, and their health is better.

Are there improvements from a policy perspective you would like to see?

Congress has not yet funded the HHS Office on Climate Change and Health Equity. I would like to see Congress step up and put some money behind that so that the office can do its work. I think the Department of Health and Human Services can (also) serve as a leader in this and incentivize health systems to become greener.

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