The new guidance offers a framework for health systems to address climate change

Federal AHRQ offers a starting point for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

A federal agency for medical research hopes its new guidance will help doctors, clinical staff and managers begin to reduce greenhouse gas emissions generated by health care systems.

“Decarbonizing Healthcare: A Case Study of Climate Change Mitigation Measures and Actions” was published on September 22 by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Healthcare systems are a “significant contributor to climate change,” responsible for 10 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to what federal officials describe as a global climate crisis.

At the same time, they are responsible for managing the effects on patients and damage to their own infrastructure from climate-related weather disasters, according to AHRQ, HHS and the US House Ways and Means Committee.

“Climate change is a major threat to human health with acute impacts on people who have been marginalized in the United States and around the world,” said AHRQ Director Robert Otto Valdes, PhD, MHSA, in a news release about the new primer. “Extreme weather events, deteriorating air quality, and increasing food and water insecurity now threaten health care operations and present challenges to continuity of care, patient safety and quality, and cost containment.” This example can help healthcare stakeholders respond to this crisis through their example and preparedness.”

Where should I start from

AHRQ said the primer describes six areas contributing to health care greenhouse gas emissions:

  • Building energy
  • Transportation
  • Anesthetic gas
  • Pharmaceuticals and chemicals
  • Medical devices and consumables
  • Food

There are core and optional measures to track progress along with strategies to reduce greenhouse gases in each area, according to AHRQ. The agency also outlines a potential initial plan, including nominating executive leadership and a team to study issues, create goals and action plans, propose interventions and measure results.

More attention

The primer was released in coordination with “Accelerating Health Sector Action on Climate Change and Health Equity,” an ongoing webinar series hosted by HHS. The department hopes to disseminate information that will boost the health care system’s efforts to reduce their environmental impact.

In March, U.S. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., issued a request from various health systems to explain how climate events have affected health care.

Some health systems were called “climate innovators” by taking measures to reduce their environmental impact on a large scale, according to the panel’s findings. This online report, “Health Care and the Climate Crisis: Preparing America’s Health Care Infrastructure,” was posted for the Sept. 15 committee hearing on the topic.

Kaiser Permanente appears to be a leading national example, achieving carbon neutrality in 2020 and now focusing on becoming carbon negative, according to the Ways & Means Committee findings.

I’m just getting started

The AHRQ Primer and House Ways & Means Committee report contain other concrete and anecdotal examples of how health systems are responding to climate change.

Meanwhile, HHS announced that more than 600 hospitals and healthcare businesses and organizations have signed the Healthcare Climate Pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build a “more climate-resilient infrastructure.” The American Medical Association has declared climate change a public health crisis, and the National Academy of Medicine has launched a Joint Action to Decarbonize the US Health Sector.

But federal leaders agreed that the process of strengthening health care while reducing environmental impact is just beginning, and some health system leaders may not know where to start.

“The U.S. health care system is just beginning to feel the harmful effects of climate change,” Neal said in a statement opening the panel’s meeting. “But it is clear that more climate-related weather events and rising emissions will continue to worsen health outcomes, and the time to act is now.”

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