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Transforming Healthcare for a Climate-proof Future

Connie Cai Ru Gan

Imagine a pregnant woman in front of you. Just as her water breaks, a massive storm erupts, flooding the roads. Even the hospital is underwater. What would you do? Rain and earthquakes in Hokkaido, Japan in 2018 caused a 40-hour blackout, and more than 100 hospitals did not have enough water and power to last for three days. Hurricane Dorian in 2019 caused total devastation in the Bahamas and shut down three major hospitals. Our climate crisis is bringing far more frequent and dangerous extremes.

Across the world, stories like these are thus happening more often. The COVID-19 pandemic only accelerates hospitals’ crises. Currently, most hospitals have disaster management plans for yesterday, but not for tomorrow, and certainly not for the climate-changing future. Given that women and people living at intersections of multiple inequities are made additionally vulnerable, the healthcare sector must be better prepared for a world where climate change and environmental transformation are realities. In this article, I share critical recommendations for 'Future-proof hospitals'.

How can hospitals mitigate and prepare for climate change?

The ‘Future-proof hospital’ model was developed through three-year action research among the International Network of Health Promoting Hospitals and Health Services (HPH) members. It aims to map the existing instruments, both international and national, which support hospitals to achieve sustainability and resiliency. The model integrated a reporting system that benchmarks and measures progress; allowing policymakers to aggregate data by hospital group, city, provincial and national level.

A medical staff-led strategy that reduced 30,000 single-use plastic cup per month (credit: Yi-Hong Lu)

The future-proof hospital model identifies social-economic-political factors and feasible strategies and addresses the operational gap between guidelines and practice at local, national, and international levels. Work is underway to understand how hospitals have addressed the climate crisis and the tools used to measure implementations. A recent study revealed that seventy-two health-promoting hospitals collectively reduced 6% of total carbon emissions per hospital bed than the baseline year 2007.

Exemplary hospitals are also adopting reliable energy alternatives and programs to promote effective waste management, which significantly reduces their costs and carbon emissions.

Since 2007, more than 200 HPHs (ranging from 20-2000 beds) are adopting sustainability measures and tracking their emissions in energy consumption and healthcare waste management. These high potential solutions are already spreading through the hospitals’ network and the medical community. While existing research looks at disaster preparedness or climate adaptation, integrating both and operationalize these fields remains a significant challenge, regional HPH network.

With this approach, we can get ahead of disasters, to drive better and more inclusive responses and recovery, which will save lives, money, and the planet, all at the same time. In the face of climate change, I hope to build hospitals that are future-proof against disasters, so that when our babies arrive, at the same time as big storms, we can look at their mothers’ eyes, and say, “we’ve got this."

About the author: Connie Cai Ru Gan is a doctoral candidate at Griffith Univesity’s Centre for Environment and Population Health and a mentee at the Women Leaders for Planetary Health (2020). Twitter@connie_gan

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