Taking Action on Climate Change: Steps for Health Care Providers
Read the full article on the Rx for Prevention website
Health care providers have two important roles in responding to climate change: taking actions to mitigate climate change and addressing its impact on patients. This article, the second in a two-part series, will discuss how the health care sector contributes to climate change and focus on steps that clinicians can take on a clinical, institutional, policy, and personal level to slow climate change.
The first article, “Climate Change and Health in LA County: Opportunities for Clinical Intervention,” summarized the latest science on the health risks of climate change, described the populations in Los Angeles County most likely to be impacted, and offered specific strategies that clinicians can use to protect the health of their patients from extreme heat, wildfires, poor air quality, and vector-borne diseases.
Impact of the Health Care Sector on Climate Change
The health care sector in the United States contributes significantly to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the primary contributor to climate change. In fact, if the U.S. health care sector were a country, it would be the world’s 13th largest emitter of GHGs, ranked higher than the United Kingdom. While national GHG emissions, as tracked by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), have decreased, GHG emissions from the U.S. health care sector have increased approximately 30% over the last decade, rising to nearly 10% of total U.S. emissions in 2013.1 The figure below shows the health care sector’s total GHG emissions against its share of total U.S. emissions. Both steadily increased between 2003 and 2013.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions from U.S. Health Care Sector, 2003 – 20131
Orange bars represent absolute emissions (in million metric tons).
Blue line represents the percentage of national emissions.
Suppliers of energy, goods, and services account for the largest sources of GHG emissions in the U.S. health care sector. Among these suppliers, power generators (off-site power plants supplying power to heath care facilities) account for the largest source (36%) of these emissions.1
Actions to Mitigate Climate Change
There are many opportunities for clinicians to use their expert knowledge and professional influence to slow climate change and protect their patients’ health. Examples of recommended clinical, institutional, policy, and personal actions are described below. See the Further Engagement section for resources for getting involved.
Interactions with Patients
Many behaviors that promote health also mitigate climate change. It is likely that clinicians already provide advice that helps patients reduce their GHG emissions. For instance, encouraging patients to walk or bike (rather than drive) and replace some of the meat and processed food in their diet with vegetables not only promotes a healthier lifestyle but also mitigates climate change.2
Consider prominently placing informational materials related to climate change and health in waiting rooms. Resources include the Center for Climate Change & Health’s Climate and Health posters and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health’s fact sheet on reducing one’s carbon footprint.
Another clinician behavior that promotes health, which may also mitigate GHG emissions, is the reduction of use of unnecessary tests and treatments such as those recommended by the Choosing Wisely initiative. Clinicians can read a prior Rx for Prevention article to learn more about Choosing Wisely.
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