Considering the impact on human health of these increasingly common extreme environmental events and conditions, many stakeholders across the health care ecosystem are finally beginning to feel a broad sense of urgency. The medical research community now fully recognizes the human health impacts of climate change, as more than 200 medical journals released an unprecedented joint statement last September citing it as the “greatest threat” to global public health.10 The issue has become a priority for the US government, and human health played a markedly more central role in the dialogues of the United Nations’ COP26 global climate conference. And, as part of the broader portfolio of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) priorities, companies across the sector are increasingly focused on reducing their operational footprint, even beginning to address health impacts of climate change.
At Intermountain Healthcare, for example, climate change has become an organizational priority, driving investments in renewable energy, decarbonization, and energy efficiency. And even for health plan organizations, with a smaller direct emissions footprint than their provider and life sciences counterparts, climate and sustainability initiatives have become leadership priorities. Centene, for example, has increasingly prioritized environmental and climate issues over the past few years with a focus not just on emissions reduction but the impact of environmental factors on the health of their members. Health care ESG coalition groups have also emerged as important players in recent years as organizations have begun to tackle climate-related challenges head on.
Organizations such as Bon Secours Mercy Health have joined health care ESG coalition groups such as the nationwide Healthcare Anchor Network to collaborate across organizations on social determinants of health, including those which are affected by environmental issues.
At the same time, health care is rapidly shifting its focus from a reactive treatment of diseases and illnesses to a model that equitably and proactively promotes health and wellness across populations. This change will likely continue to accelerate as data and technology, deployed in a decentralized fashion directly with consumers outside of traditional care settings, allow us to have “always-on” measurements of health, better understand the underlying causal mechanisms of health and wellness, and predict disease and illness. This shift alone portends dramatic changes for players across the health care industry, demanding new business models from both incumbents and disruptors. However, climate change and its related impacts can present an enormous challenge to the realization of this healthier future.
Climate change not only contributes to a host of health issues, but it can also exacerbate the health inequities that the industry has recently begun working in earnest to rectify.
That’s because the communities that are the most vulnerable to the effects of a changing climate tend to be those least equipped to manage and recover from the physical, economic, mental, and social devastation that accompanies it.
Indeed, addressing the “greatest threat” to global public health is no small undertaking. It likely requires health organizations to mitigate their own sizable carbon emissions, transform their operations to meet emerging needs, and engage across the sector to create more sustainable supply chains. Organizations should understand the vulnerabilities in the patient populations they care for, as well as the geography-based expected climate impacts for their regions they serve. As first responders to human health emergencies, and as organizations dedicated to health and well-being, life sciences and health care organizations hold a responsibility to prove resiliency in times of need and to contribute to building healthier communities. Without organizational-level changes to become more climate resilient, a healthier and more equitable Future of Health may not be achieved.