Curbing the impacts of climate on health

July 8, 2024 Providence Environmental Stewardship

[6 MIN READ] 

In this article:

  • Climate change has a massive effect on human health. That includes direct outcomes from extreme weather events and indirect impacts from mass migration, civil unrest and food insecurity. 

  • These impacts of the climate crisis mean people may experience dangerous physical and mental health conditions ranging from heat-related illness to behavioral health concerns.  

  • Learn more about the health impacts of climate change and the work Providence is doing through its WE ACT, We REACH and We SHARE [KG1] [SB2] frameworks to protect the communities we serve.  

Climate change has far-reaching impacts – both for the planet and the people who live on it. In particular, the changing climate has direct and indirect impacts on human health. 

“From increased cardiovascular events during extreme heat to poor air quality from wildfires increasing the incidence of asthma, we are actively dealing with the effects of climate change as caregivers every day,” says Amy Herold, M.D., chief medical officer, Providence Queen of the Valley Medical Center. “While some of these changes are direct, others, like mass migration and social unrest, can harm health in different, less direct ways.”

Health care organizations can help community members prepare for climate-related events, save lives, improve well-being and reduce the costs associated with these health events. This is especially important since health care facilities are so critical in providing care for communities during extreme weather events.

That’s why the health care sector must play a part in addressing climate change – both in combatting the effects on health and in mitigating our own environmental impact. Providence is committed to climate action and environmental stewardship by curbing our emissions, building resilience in the communities we serve and advocating for change at the local, regional and national levels. 

“Health care has a unique role to play in combatting the effects of climate change because we have a voice of authority on the reality of health effects, but we are also part of the problem because of the emissions we are contributing,” says Dr. Herold. “We are taking this issue seriously at Providence to reduce our carbon footprint.”

Climate change and human health

Climate change affects human health in significant ways. Directly, frequent, severe heat waves, extreme weather events and wildfires can cause air pollution and lower water quality. Indirectly, these events can lead to changes in infectious disease spread, food insecurity, civil unrest and mass migrations. Many of these health threats can lead to public health (and global health) crises.  

These effects can lead to health issues like:

  • Anxiety, depression and PTSD related to extreme weather events.
  • Excess cardiovascular deaths.
  • Heat-related illnesses, such as heat stroke.
  • Greater risk to pregnant women and babies, including birth defects.
  • Higher suicide risk.
  • Increased asthma from particulate matter.
  • Increased violence, domestic strife and civil unrest during dangerous weather events. 

“As caregivers, we frequently have conversations with patients about issues affecting their health,” says Dr. Herold. “That includes addressing topics like weight management, smoking cessation and lowering blood pressure. We should also be able to address environmental factors like climate change during these clinical conversations intended to evaluate their risk and protect them from harm. We want to be able to address specific issues with patients and help them understand how the climate affects them personally.” 

Extreme climate events can also lead to disruption of care for patients with chronic physical and mental health conditions.  

“The risk from these harms is even greater for vulnerable groups, including people in lower income areas, children, the elderly and people with underlying disease,” says Dr. Herold. “When you look at these disparities, these dangers are such a social injustice.” 

As a health care system, Providence is creating innovative solutions to improve outcomes for patients, including using electronic health records to proactively understand who is at risk, like patients with preexisting respiratory, cardiovascular and mental health conditions.

WE ACT: Climate mitigation

Combating the health impacts of climate change requires reducing our own greenhouse gas emissions. That’s why Providence developed the WE ACT framework, which focuses on reducing carbon emissions from Waste, Energy and water, Agriculture and food, Chemicals, and Transportation. 

Providence has made strides in reducing emissions in these areas, recording a 12.5% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions since 2019. These mitigation efforts include:

  • Curbing the carbon intensity of food service operations, including by sourcing food locally.
  • Decreasing use of high-emission anesthetic agents in the operating room.
  • Encouraging alternative commute options for caregivers.
  • Reducing waste sent to landfills, including through composting and recycling.
  • Transitioning away from fossil fuels to renewable electricity.
  • Upgrading to more efficient systems, such as switching to LED lighting 

“Climate change can feel overwhelming, but combating it begins with identifying the issues we can manage,” says Dr. Herold. “From system-wide, umbrella strategies to individual actions, we are collaborating with our peers, families and patients to take the small steps that will multiply to reduce our footprint.”

You can learn more about Providence’s efforts in mitigation, resiliency and advocacy to combat climate change through these resources:

“Every successful movement starts with people who care,” says Dr. Herold. “We must start small and see what is in our sphere of control. There are things we can do as a group of doctors – like making switches to asthma inhalers that use less climate-intensive propellants – that can reduce our footprint in the health care realm, and over time, those individual efforts can grow together.” 

We REACH: Building climate resilient communities

In addition to addressing the direct health impacts of climate change on patients, Providence is working to prepare for, respond to and recover from the effects of climate change. That’s why Providence created the We REACH framework, which focuses on Resilience, Equity, Adaptation, Climate, and Health.

That means ensuring health care facilities can continue to operate during extreme weather events. To achieve this goal, Providence has developed emergency preparedness plans tailored to climate-related health risks, from heat domes to wildfires to severe flooding, to ensure safety during these events and equitable recovery afterward.

“We have our long-term strategy of mitigating carbon emissions over time, but what are we going to do today when ash is falling from the sky following wildfires?” says Dr. Herold. “Building emergency plans to provide health services for communities and developing partnerships with local organizations are so important in keeping people safe today when acute events happen.”

We SHARE: Climate justice and environmental justice

Justice is a core value at Providence, which is why we are committed to both climate justice and environmental justice. Climate justice addresses the inequities of climate change on vulnerable populations, while environmental justice ensures all communities have equal access to clean air, water and a healthy environment. 

Providence is promoting climate and environmental justice through our We SHARE framework that focuses on advocacy and leadership in environmental stewardship. This framework emphasizes Service, Health, Advocacy, Relationships and Education. In practice, this means driving community engagement, partnerships and advocacy for policies that protect vulnerable populations. For example, Providence was one of the first signers of the Department of Health and Human Services Health Sector Climate Pledge, which has brought over 900 hospitals together to commit to emissions reduction and climate resilience goals. 

In addition, since many health systems serve as trusted voices in their communities and can influence policy, Providence is educating health professionals and community members to better understand these health impacts from climate change and ways to reduce harm.

 “Caring for all is in our mission statement and it falls squarely in our vision of health for a better world,” says Dr. Herold. “Climate justice, environmental justice and health care justice are tied together and with our mission. It blends with what we are doing to care for communities and keep future generations healthy.” 

Contributing caregiver

                 

Amy Herold, M.D., is the chief medical officer of Providence Queen of the Valley Medical Center in Napa, California.

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Related resources

Caring for our common home: Environmental stewardship at Providence

Celebrating stewardship: Honoring Practice Greenhealth winners

Curbing carbon emissions with efficient and renewable energy

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

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