A new guide offers the basics of health systems to combat climate change

Federal AHRQ offers a starting point for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The Federal Medical Research Agency hopes its new guide will help doctors, clinical staff and managers begin to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that health care systems create.

“Decarbonizing Health Care: A Guide to Actions and Actions to Mitigate Climate Change” was published on September 22 by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Health care systems are a “significant contributor to climate change,” responsible for 10 percent 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 the impact on patients and damage to their own infrastructure from climate-related weather events, according to AHRQ, HHS and the US House Ways and Means Committee.

“Climate change is a major threat to human health with acute consequences for people who have been marginalized in the United States and around the world,” said AHRQ Director Robert Otto Valdes, Ph.D., MHSA, in a news release about the new primer. “Extreme weather events, deteriorating air quality, and increasing food and water insecurity are now threatening the health care system and creating challenges for continuity of care, patient safety and quality, and cost containment. This guide can help health care stakeholders respond to this crisis by example and preparedness.”

Where to start

AHRQ said the guide describes six areas that contribute to health care’s greenhouse gas emissions:

  • Construction energy
  • Transport
  • Anesthetic gas
  • Pharmaceuticals and chemicals
  • Medical devices and accessories
  • food

According to AHRQ, there are fundamental and selective measures to track progress and strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in each area. The agency also outlines a potential launch plan, including appointing executive leadership and teams to study issues, create goals and action plans, propose interventions, and measure results.

More attention

The guide was published in conjunction with the Accelerating Health Sector Action on Climate Change and Equity in Health Webinar Series, a continuing webinar series hosted by HHS. The Department hopes to disseminate information that will advance the efforts of the health care system to reduce their impact on the environment.

In March, the chairman of the US House Ways and Means Committee, Congressman Richard Neal, D-Mass., issued a request to various health care systems to explain how climate events have affected health care.

According to the committee’s findings, some health care systems have been named “climate innovators” that are taking steps to reduce environmental impact on a large scale. This online report, “Health Care and the Climate Crisis: Preparing America’s Health Care Infrastructure,” was posted for the Sept. 15 hearing on the topic.

According to the Ways & Means Committee findings, Kaiser Permanente is a leading national example of achieving carbon neutrality in 2020 and now focusing on becoming carbon negative.

We are just getting started

The AHRQ primer and the House Ways & Means Committee report provide other concrete and anecdotal examples of how health care systems are responding to climate change.

Meanwhile, HHS announced that more than 600 hospitals and health care businesses and organizations have signed the Health Care Climate Pledge to reduce 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 launched a joint action to decarbonize the US healthcare sector.

But federal leaders agreed that the process of improving health care while reducing environmental impact is just beginning, and some health care leaders may not know where to start.

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

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