New Guidebook Offers Basics for Health Care Systems to Address Climate Change

Federal AHRQ offers starting point for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

A federal medical research agency hopes its new guidebook can help physicians, clinical staff, and executives begin cutting greenhouse gas emissions generated by health systems.

“Reducing Healthcare Carbon Emissions: A Primer on Measures and Actions to Mitigate Climate Change,” was published Sept. 22 by the US Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).

Health systems are “a significant contributor to climate change,” responsible for 10% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to what federal officials describe as a global climate crisis.

At the same time, they are responsible for managing effects on patients, and damage to their own infrastructure, from climate-related weather disasters, according to AHRQ, HHS and the US House of Representatives Ways & Means Committee.

“Climate change is a major threat to human health with acute impacts for people who have been marginalized across the United States and around the world,” AHRQ Director Robert Otto Valdez, PhD, MHSA, said in a news release about the new primer. “Extreme weather events, declining air quality, and growing food and water insecurity now threaten healthcare operations and present challenges in care continuity, patient safety and quality, and cost containment. This primer can help healthcare stakeholders respond to this crisis through their example and preparedness.”

Where to begin

AHRQ said the primer describes six domains contributing to greenhouse gas emissions in healthcare:

  • Building energy
  • Transportation
  • Anesthetic gas
  • Pharmaceuticals and chemicals
  • Medical devices and supplies
  • Food

There are fundamental and elective measures to track progress, along with strategies for reducing greenhouse gases in each area, according to AHRQ. The agency also outlines a potential starting plan, including nominating executive leadership and a team to examine issues, create goals and action plans, suggest interventions, and measure results.

More attention

The primer was published in coordination with “Accelerating Healthcare Sector Action on Climate Change and Health Equity,” a continuing series of webinars hosted by HHS. The department hopes to spread information that jumpstarts health system efforts to reduce their environmental effects.

In March, US House of Representative Ways & Means Committee Chairman Rep. Richard Neal, D-Massachusetts, issued a requested various health systems explain how climate events have affected health care.

Some health systems were dubbed “climate innovators,” taking measures to reduce their environmental effects on a large scale, according to the committee’s findings. That online report, “Health Care and the Climate Crisis: Preparing America’s Health Care Infrastructure,” was published for a Sept. 15 committee hearing on the topic.

It appeared Kaiser Permanente is a national leading example, reaching carbon neutrality in 2020 and now focusing on becoming carbon negative, according to the Ways & Means Committee findings.

Just getting started

The AHRQ primer and House Ways & Means Committee report contain other specific and anecdotal examples of how health systems are responding to climate change.

Meanwhile, HHS announced more than 600 hospitals and health sector businesses and organizations had signed on to the Health Care Sector Climate Pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions and build “more climate resilient infrastructure.” The American Medical Association has declared climate change a public health crisis, and the National Academy of Medicine has started the Action Collaborative on Decarbonizing the US Health Sector.

But federal leaders agreed the process for strengthening health care while reducing environmental effects is only getting started, and some health care system leaders may not know where to begin.

“The US health care system is only beginning to feel the damaging effects of climate change,” Neal said in his committee meeting opening statement. “But it’s clear that more climate-related weather events and rising emissions will continue to worsen health outcomes, and the time for action is now.”

This article was originally published by Medical Economics.