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Dec 1, 2021

Climate change and health – A direct correlation

Climate change is always a topic of much discussion, but it was in the spotlight recently around the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26), held in early November in Glasgow, Scotland. At this important conference, a group of 50 countries were represented and committed to develop climate-resilient and low-carbon health systems in response to growing evidence of the impact of climate change on people’s health. The majority of those countries also committed to transforming their health systems to be more sustainable and low-carbon, and about one-third of those set a target date for net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

This conference shined a light on the important connection between climate change and health, one that we might not always make at first thought. Rising carbon emissions have resulted in a 46% increase in extreme weather events and natural disasters since 1980, including heat waves, floods, droughts, forest fires, hurricanes, and cyclones. They have also contributed to increasing the global average temperature by 1.2 degrees Celsius since 2015, which has led to environmental impacts such as sea level rise, ocean acidification, ice melt, and lost glacial mass.*

Climate change and its resulting impacts is one of the single largest threats facing human health today. The sharp rise in extreme weather events linked to global warming have led to increased death, disease, and illness; disruption of food systems; and access to healthcare, social support and many other social determinants for good health. And unfortunately, many of these impacts are felt disproportionately by the poor and most vulnerable in our societies, and those who are older or have more health conditions.

What can we all do to practice more sustainable healthcare?

There are obviously no fast or easy solutions to combatting global climate change and its impacts. But together, the healthcare industry can take steps to be part of the solution by doing our part to reduce carbon emissions from health systems. A great resource to learn more about this is Practice Greenhealth, the leading membership and networking organization for sustainable healthcare and environmental solutions for hospitals and health systems across the U.S.

Healthcare entities generate an extreme amount of waste, and this resource looks at the environmental impact of the healthcare industry and solutions to minimize it. The site provides practical tips and information across a number of environmental areas pertinent to the healthcare industry, including physical buildings, chemicals, energy, greening the operating room, procurement, transportation, waste, and more.

A resource for local context

The Rhode Island Medical Society (RIMS) has just published a special edition of its Rhode Island Medical Journal called Climate Change and Health.” This resource provides a detailed look at the impacts of climate change on health, healthcare institutions, and mitigation strategies, with a special emphasis on impacts regionally in New England, as well as locally right here in Rhode Island.

Specific articles cover topics like mapping electricity-dependent patients in a coastal city; the connection between ozone air pollution and asthma; the connection between rising temperatures and increases in emergency services; and several on waste handling processes at local healthcare facilities, which are intended to reduce carbon emissions. This issue is a fascinating read and a great reference tool to begin your research into this critically vital topic.

This month, we observe World AIDS Day on December 1, as well as National Hand Washing Awareness Week from December 5-11…something that is extremely important as we continue to fight COVID-19 and of course, the flu. As always, thank you for your partnership and for all you do to help our members stay safe and healthy. Happy holidays from all of us at Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island!

*Rhode Island Medical Journal special section: Climate Change and Health, November 2021