What hospitals are doing for climate resiliency

Other businesses need to take similar steps

THIS MARCH, BRUTAL NOR’EASTERS have battered the region weekly, knocking out power to thousands and causing destructive flooding along the coastline. ‘Bomb cyclone’ and ‘polar vortex’ have become popular terms as extreme weather becomes more frequent and fierce. Climate change modeling predicts this, yet it appears to be happening faster than expected.  It’s time to focus on improving the climate resilience of our households, businesses, and infrastructure to accommodate this new normal.

Industries nationwide might do well to look to Massachusetts’ health care system, which is investing in renewable energy and taking tangible steps to build resilience into its systems and facilities, setting an example in sustainable health care delivery. This is true from Boston – one of the nation’s most climate-vulnerable cities – and westward to Springfield, where tornadoes did serious harm a few years ago.

The Health Care Climate Council of the nonprofit Health Care Without Harm has laid out comprehensive strategies for transforming hospitals so they not only heal patients, but also reduce their unintended environmental health impacts while enhancing climate resilience.  Drawing lessons from increasingly severe weather events and wildfires nationwide, we released a report in December, in collaboration with Pricewaterhouse Coopers Advisory Services LLC, entitled Safe haven in the storm: Protecting lives and margins with climate smart health care. It demonstrates how and why health care leaders are moving to safeguard lives and their organization’s financial viability.

Safe Haven analyzes billions of dollars in losses and resilience-related savings to demonstrate how preparing for extreme weather can make or break a health system, and how smart executives take action. For instance, severe winter storms in 2015 caused reduced admissions and canceled surgeries at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, resulting in a $10 million loss. During Superstorm Sandy in 2012, NYU Langone Hospital quickly plunged into darkness as 15 million gallons of water topped flood barriers, knocked out power, and inundated research laboratories, resulting in over $700 million in research material losses and the deaths of thousands of research animals.

For years as hospitals struggle to break even, they have asked how they can justify spending valuable time and resources preparing for relatively infrequent (albeit increasing) extreme events, hotter summers and bad air quality?  They are already juggling big challenges like improving patient care, uncertainty in federal policy, implementing electronic medical records, moving care closer to home, and advancing community health.

Now, Safe haven shows the cost of addressing and preparing for climate change is much lower than the cost of business-as-usual, laying out a four-pronged approach for taking action: manage extreme weather risks through assessment and planning, reduce emissions in ways that also increase resilience, invest in community-level health and resilience, and lead on policy.

Since hospitals are deeply intertwined with communities and infrastructure, Safe haven also demonstrates the need to partner with communities, regional emergency preparedness coalitions, and especially with policymakers.  The Health Care Climate Council and others decried the federal administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, and clinicians are increasingly speaking out to defend the public’s health from many environmental health harms, and any increased use of fossil fuels.

One of Health Care Without Harm’s goals is energy transformation, helping hospitals be energy efficient and buy clean, renewable energy. Two more Health Care Without Harm reports detail how energy-efficiency and 50 megawatts of new renewable-energy investments by Boston Medical Center and Partners HealthCare are enabling metro Boston’s health care sector to deliver a 33 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 (47 percent below business as usual).

These facilities are years ahead of meeting Boston’s and the Commonwealth’s goals of 25 percent reductions by 2020, and committed to being carbon neutral for all buildings’ energy by 2025 or sooner. Plus, Resilience 2.0: Healthcare’s Role in Anchoring Community Health and Resilience  shows how metro Boston hospitals, NGOs municipalities, utilities, and state agencies are collaborating to address climate change’s huge impacts, from extreme heat, to flooding and stronger winds.

We must re-evaluate how climate change will continue to threaten health care, with potentially catastrophic impacts on patients, their households, communities, and even on MassHealth and the Commonwealth’s budget.  We know the financial impacts extend far beyond hospital walls; poverty rates typically increase one percent after big disasters, driving up uninsured/underinsured care costs. Extreme weather also generates significant mental health trauma and stress, particularly for those who lose loved ones, income or jobs, housing, and/or hard-earned savings.

Meet the Author

Paul Lipke

Senior advisor for energy and buildings, Health Care Without Harm
The benefits of hospital preparedness for health care leaders include strong returns on investment and better risk management, fiduciary responsibility, enhanced reputation, and insurance coverage stability.

It is imperative that not just health care, but all institutions, businesses and our communities seek the economic and community benefits from investments in clean energy, resilient design, and climate-smart emergency planning. Without this we put in harm’s way the health and wellbeing of our loved ones, communities,  patients and our hospitals’ financial viability.

Paul Lipke is senior advisor for energy and buildings at Health Care Without Harm.