Now or never. Hospitals must tackle climate change to protect public health

As the nation mourns the loss of life and devastation in Florida and the Carolinas resulting from Hurricane Ian, public health experts are sounding the alarm about after-effects of the storm that could lead to both short- and long-term health problems. The federal and state governments will provide emergency relief and health systems will, no doubt, rise to the challenge and do their best to care for each and every person impacted by this storm. But when we reflect on our oath to “First, do no harm,” are we doing everything we can to “First, do no harm” when it comes to fighting climate change?

Eugene A. Woods, President and CEO, Atrium Health

The healthcare sector contributes 8% to 10% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions, which are said to help fuel the monster storms, such as Ian. If the global healthcare sector were a country, its emissions would be the fifth largest on the planet — larger than the entire United Kingdom. We must do better, especially because climate change poses direct threats to human health.

President Joe Biden recently signed into law a much-needed package of incentives to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, but it’s time for healthcare systems to do our part, moving forward with ingenuity, persistence and collaboration. This year, Atrium Health proudly became one of the first healthcare systems to sign the Health Care Sector Pledge organized by the White House, doubling down on its commitment to cut carbon emissions in half by 2030 and achieve Net Zero emissions before 2050. Atrium Health previously pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2025. It’s time for other health systems to accept this challenge too.

As floods, violent storms and heat waves dominate the headlines, less visible is the dramatic, long-term impact climate change is having on individual health, especially for those who are already most marginalized and often living paycheck to paycheck. These communities bear the brunt of asthma and lung cancer, which is exacerbated by air pollution, including mold and toxins that rise after events like Ian. These populations are at far greater risk of dying from extreme climate-related causes.

When climate change wreaks havoc on agriculture, it makes it even harder for people to access affordable and nutritious food, leading to chronic conditions like diabetes and hypertension, which hit communities of color and people with fewer resources disproportionally hard.

It’s time for the healthcare industry to roll up its sleeves and be part of the solution. At Atrium Health, we are poised to leverage our unique position as a major employer and purchaser to partner with other private sector leaders, as well as local, state and national lawmakers. Our unique successes during the pandemic proved how the power of collaboration, the importance of public-private partnerships and a mission-focused commitment to action can effectively solve the biggest, most urgent challenges. This approach will serve us well as we stiffen our resolve to tackle emissions.

We must think both small and big about how to decarbonize the healthcare sector and keep putting plans into action, bringing the best minds together to chip away at the most intractable part of our industry’s carbon emissions. Specifically, we must make huge strides in renewable energy and tackling other indirect emissions, including from pharmaceuticals and medical devices.

At the beginning of their career, each physician takes an oath: “First, do no harm.” We, as a collective healthcare sector, owe it to the populations we serve to carry that mantra forward in our approach to climate change. I challenge my fellow leaders within the industry to help make the healthcare sector the standard-bearer in terms of reducing its carbon footprint, as we improve health, elevate hope and advance healing for all, for generations to come.

Eugene A. Woods, MBA, MHA, FACHE, is president and chief executive officer of Atrium Health, one of the largest non-profit and leading academic health systems in the United States. Headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, Atrium Health employs over 70,000 teammates who serve patients at 40 hospitals and more than 1,400 care locations across North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama.

More Stories

Climate Health Inequities: An Industry Call-to-Action

Healthcare organizations have an imperative to advance climate-related health equity, as it fits squarely in line with their fundamental purpose to protect and promote health for all. Using the ESG framework as a compass, they can play a large role in alleviating these disparities through improved sustainability and access efforts. In this feature, we highlight health systems linking health equity and carbon reduction goals.

Q&A: How public health departments and providers can partner to mitigate climate change

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.


Advisory Sponsor

Produced by