Written by Mihai Dumbrava, MD-PhD candidate, Mayo Clinic School of Medicine, and the Schilsky Family Summer Research Scholar in the 2022 Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program
Taking part in the Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program – Public & Global Health Track at WashU, I have slowly begun to recognize that, in addition to direct medical interventions that healthcare workers can implement for their patients, there is another layer of change that can be made by focusing on the environment in which we live, work, and build. One of our seminar sessions discussed the Midwest Climate Collaborative, a multi-stage engagement aimed at identifying immediate and long-term climate priorities for the Midwest, including strategies that can inform and accelerate climate mitigation and adaptation.
Climate change has created air pollution leading to chronic lung disease, affected our food supply, and led to flooding and extreme weather events such as wildfires. According to the American Lung Association, the populations that face a disproportionately greater risk from climate change include children, the elderly and lower-income communities (because of where they live and more limited access to medical care).
As a medical student, I am especially interested in how the healthcare sector can limit its impact on the environment to address climate change and move towards a more just and environmentally sustainable future. Recently, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has partnered with the Biden Administration to encourage healthcare organizations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase climate resilience. Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) reports that the healthcare sector in the U.S. emits 4.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, hospitals, health systems, doctors’ offices, pharmaceutical companies, medical device companies, and others are responsible for 8.5% of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
As healthcare institutions are often leaders in developing research interventions that can save patients’ lives, there is now an opportunity for the healthcare sector to lead in another field – reducing climate emissions. While I do not know how we can make these changes, I believe that one step that can be taken is setting emission and pollution standards for health systems by accrediting bodies. Furthermore, state and local health departments could work with healthcare institutions to allocate funding for these changes. Finally, I feel that as students and healthcare workers, we have a duty to learn about the environmental impact of healthcare institutions and identify and advocate for future change.