New guidebook offers basics for health care systems to address climate change

Federal AHRQ offers starting points for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

A federal medical research agency hopes its new guide can help physicians, clinical staff and business leaders reduce greenhouse gas emissions from healthcare systems.

“Reducing Healthcare Carbon Emissions: An Introduction to Measures and Actions to Mitigate Climate Change,” was published September 22 by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Agency for Research and Quality in Healthcare (AHRQ).

Health systems are “significant contributors to climate change,” responsible for 10% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, and contributing to what federal officials are calling the global climate crisis.

At the same time, they have a responsibility to manage the impact on patients and damage to their own infrastructure from climate-related weather disasters, according to AHRQ, HHS, and the US House Ways & Means Committee.

“Climate change is a major human health threat with acute implications for people who have been marginalized in the United States and around the world,” said AHRQ Director Robert Otto Valdez, PhD, MHSA, in a press release on the new foundation. “Extreme weather events, declining air quality, and growing food and water insecurity are now threatening healthcare operations, posing challenges in continuity of care, patient safety and quality, and cost containment. This launch can help healthcare stakeholders, by example and their willingness to respond to this crisis.”

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where to start

AHRQ said the primer outlines six areas that contribute to healthcare greenhouse gas emissions:

  • build energy
  • transport
  • anesthetic gas
  • pharmaceuticals and chemicals
  • Medical devices and supplies
  • meal

According to AHRQ, there are basic and optional measures to track progress and strategies to reduce greenhouse gases in each area. The agency also outlines a possible launch plan, including nominating senior management and a team to investigate issues, create goals and action plans, propose interventions, and measure results.

More attention

The introduction was released in conjunction with Accelerating Healthcare Sector Action on Climate Change and Health Equity, an ongoing series of webinars hosted by HHS. The department hopes to disseminate information that will spur healthcare system efforts to reduce their environmental impact.

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In March, the US House of Representatives Ways & Means Committee Chairman, Rep. Richard Neal, D-Massachusetts, issued a call for various health care systems to explain how climate events have impacted health care.

Some health systems have been dubbed “climate innovators” and are taking action to reduce their environmental impact at scale, the committee found. This online report, “Health Care and the Climate Crisis: Preparing America’s Health Care Infrastructure,” was released for a September 15 committee hearing on the issue.

It appeared that Kaiser Permanente is a national example, having achieved carbon neutrality in 2020 and is now focused on becoming carbon negative, according to the Ways & Means Committee’s findings.

I start now

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

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Meanwhile, HHS announced that more than 600 hospitals and healthcare companies and organizations have signed the Health Care Sector 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 the Action Collaborative on Decarbonizing the US Health Sector.

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

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

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