What Can Large Health Care Providers Do For Climate Change? Examples From Around The World

Yesterday Health Care Without Harm and the Federation of Hospitals of France hosted a conference on climate change and healthcare in Paris. The conference focussed mostly on the role of large healthcare providers such as those providing hospital based care. Health Care Without Harm have identified three key ways in which health care organisations can contribute to tackling climate change; mitigation, resilience and leadership.*

The conference consisted mostly of the presentation of examples from across the world which illustrated how healthcare organisations were approaching climate action. Here are 8 of these which stood out for me:

1: Assistance Publique Hopitaux de Paris (AP-HP): It was great to have an example from Paris where the conference was being held. Sustainable development is now in the strategic plan for AP-HP, a organisations running 37 hospitals across Paris. The project which stood out for me was the ‘La Pitié-Salpêtrière, un Hôpital dans son écosystème’ which aimed to integrate work at the Hôpital Universitaire Pitié-Salpêtrière with the sustainable development of the surrounding area including the redevelopment of the train station Gare Austerlitz. I don’t think most hospitals have linked as well as they might with the surrounding communities and developments so this was great to hear about.

2: Buddhist Dalin Tzu Chi General Hospital Taiwan: This provided a totally different example of what carbon reduction in healthcare can look like. This hospital, run along buddhist principles, only serves plant based food in its facility even though not all of its staff and patients are vegetarian. They have a nearby farm to supply their catering and even have a food court of restaurants which are all vegetarian. There was some debate about how acceptable vegetarian diets would be in other parts of the world but the health and environmental benefits certainly mean we should be thinking about how Western hospitals can move towards healthier more vegetable based catering. Another example of how seriously sustainability was being taken was that the CEO gives reusable utensils, bowl and cup to all new staff on their arrival so they don’t use disposable equipment. Wouldn’t it be great if this happened in other healthcare organisations?

3: The UN Initiative on Sustainable Procurement in the Health Sector (SPHS): This is a partnership between 9 UN organisations along with the 3 multilateral funding bodies to collaborate on making procurement of healthcare products more sustainable. Between them they are responsible for $5 billion dollars worth of procurement spread across the world and they have built up an impressive network of supporting individual and business partners. It was great to hear that work was going on at this level and that the UN bodies are practicing what they preach.

4: Vivantes Berlin Neukolln Hospital: This hospital has won a Friends of the Earth award for its work, particularly for its success in lowering energy consumption by 60%  since 2003. But the thing which stood out for me was the fact that since 2010 they have been sourcing 100% of their electricity from green sources ( I think they said at no extra cost). This may reflect the availability of renewables in Germany but it’s nice to think we could do this in other countries soon.

5: Institut St Pierre, Palavas-Les-Flots: This paediatric clinic right next to the Mediterranean Sea in the South of France are going to be installing heat pumps so they can use the sea to cool or warm the clinic as needed. There have done other great things such as getting the children visiting day care to share transport thus dramatically reducing the mileage done. But it was the way they had turned their sea front location into good use which really caught my attention.

6: Gunderson Health System: This is a health care provider from Wisconsin which has made striking reductions in their carbon footprint and amount of particulate matter pollution produced – 84% reduction since 2008. For me the learning point was how they had found the capital for the changes which led to these savings. They used some of their investments and they could only do this because they were able to argue that the return on investment would be greater than the investments would otherwise be getting in stocks and bonds etc. Quite a neat approach.

7: Virginia Mason Health System, Seattle: As with the other health systems presenting today Virginia Mason have done many great things on reducing their carbon footprint but it was their local leadership role which stood out. They have been a leading part of building a local business coalition concerned with climate change. This has resulted in the Washington Business Climate Declaration which includes multinational businesses based in the state such as Microsoft. I haven’t come across any other health care provider taking such a proactive and impressive role in local leadership on climate change.

8: Region Skane, Sweden: This region of Sweden, which includes the city of Malmo, has committed to go fossil fuel free for transport and energy by 2020. Just to be clear that is within the next 5 years this whole region, including the health care organisations, will be off fossil fuels. That’s just amazing. I wanted to finish with this example as a reminder that if we limit our ambition we risk doing our patients a disservice. It is places like Skane which show just how ambitious we could be.

There were many other great examples but unfortunately I can’t fit them all in here. I haven’t written about the work of the Sustainable Development Unit from England, as for me this wasn’t new, but I would encourage any readers not familiar with what’s been happening in England to look at it. One challenge which Sonia Roschnik from the Unit raised, which I think is important to mention, is that the conference was perhaps overly focussed on hospitals rather than alternative models of care which are more based in communities. We need to be considering if we can transform services so they are closer to people’s everyday lives.

Repeatedly we heard today about how organisations recognised taking action on climate was entirely consistent with their mission as health organisations and inversely how other practices like investing in fossil fuels was entirely contrary to their mission as health organisations. This message, that climate action is fundamentally about being true to your vision as a health care organisation, is one of the most important ones to come out of the day for me and one every CEO and board member in every health care organisation needs to be aware of.

So to close this blog I wanted to share the closing message which Josh Karliner, Director of Global Project from Health Care Without Harm, chose to finish with. This was that to really impact climate change we need to be influencing decisions at a bigger level than just healthcare. We need to be influencing national and international policies. I couldn’t agree more. Health Care Without Harm are spot on with their inclusion of leadership as the third pillar of climate action by health care organisations. There were some great examples of it today. I would encourage every health care organisation to recognise that

It is only if we undertake action to influence the world beyond our organisations that we will see the huge benefits to health which climate action will bring.

P.S. My thanks go to the organisers of this conference. I would encourage all hospitals wanting to do more on climate change to  join the Global Green and Healthy Hospitals Initiative run by Health Care Without Harm and take the associated 2020 Climate Challenge.

*Mitigation meaning reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Resilience referring to how prepared for and adapted we are so that we can cope with climate change as best as possible. Leadership referring to the crucial role healthcare professionals and organisations can have in influencing others both within and importantly beyond the healthcare sector.

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