The White House released guidelines this week aimed at helping hospitals adapt to the impacts of climate change, including increased risk of extreme weather and sea level rise.
The report, released Tuesday by the Department of Health and Human Services, aims to help the healthcare sector become more resilient to climate change, which the White House calls a risk to public health. The report outlines ways health care systems can both adapt to and mitigate climate change, including using technologies such as combined heat and power and fuel cells to reduce energy consumption and constructing new buildings only after taking into account a region’s projections for future climate change impacts.
The report is important because, as recent storms have shown, many hospitals haven’t yet done enough to prepare themselves for climate change. In 2012, Superstorm Sandy forced evacuations in multiple New York Hospitals. Three hundred patients in New York University’s Langone Medical Center were evacuated after the hospital’s basement was flooded and its backup generators failed. Coney Island hospital was also forced to evacuate more than 220 patients after turning off its generators to prevent major damage from flooding, and Bellevue Hospital evacuated its patients from the “Katrina-esque” environment the storm had created in the hospital. As Gary Cohen, president of Healthcare Without Harm told ThinkProgress in 2013, the hospitals that were forced to shut down during Sandy should have been among the last buildings standing, but they weren’t designed with climate resilience in mind.
That lack of preparedness is what the Health and Human Services report aims to address, giving examples of simple measures hospitals can take to become more prepared for future extreme weather.
“Climate change represents a significant health risk for a large segment of the global population going forward,” Robin Guenther, co-author of the report and senior adviser to Health Care Without Harm, said in a statement. “These best practices in resilient health care infrastructure have universal application around the globe. Sharing them will enable health providers worldwide to continue delivering needed services during and after a significant weather event in their community.”
Along with the release of the guidelines, Health and Human Services announced that a number of health care professionals and leaders of health-related organizations had pledged to use the report to strengthen the health care system. Missouri-based Ascension Health committed to reducing its energy use by 20 percent compared to its 2008 levels by 2020, and is investing $20-$30 million each year in efforts to reduce its impact on climate change and become more resilient to climate-related risks. Kaiser Permanente also pledged to take some of the report’s recommendations into account, and Inova healthcare committed to “assess the vulnerabilities in its facilities and operations in light of a changing climate.”
Gundersen health care system, which reached its goal of becoming energy independent in November, also announced a goal this week of reducing its energy consumption by 25 percent. In addition, in order to ensure that there was more of a stockpile of food in its hospitals in the case of an emergency, the system pledged to expand its partnerships with local food producers. And, in an attempt to increase the commute options for employees, the system plans on providing more incentives for employees to walk to work and to invest more in creating biking and walking options for nearby employees. This way, if a disaster shuts down major roadways, some employees have more of a chance of getting to work to care for patients.