Climate resilience involves all of us: a look at health facilities’ response to climate change

For some of us who work on the front-lines of healthcare, climate change might feel like a distant problem, or an overwhelming issue.

However, authors of a 2015 article from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health explain that, “Health care facilities play a critical role in reducing health impacts from climate change by treating illnesses and injuries … caring for patients during and after disasters and actively participating in community efforts to adapt to and mitigate climate change.”

Climate change and the health sector

In BC, recent climate-related hazards have included heatwaves, unusually low precipitation, and wildfires, while regions like Central and Eastern Canada have seen an increase in winter storms due to climate change. In circumstances like these, healthcare facilities need to not only operate in the face of power outages, poor air quality, or stress on heating and cooling systems, they also need to prepare for a spike in patient visits, as well as potential shortages due to supply chain and other disruptions. Fortunately, there are more and more resources that support climate change preparedness, resilience and adaptation planning in the health sector.

What health facilities can do

In many cases, improvements that reduce the carbon pollution produced by hospital operations can also increase a facility’s resilience to climate hazards. For example, improved efficiency of lighting, heating, cooling, and ventilation systems reduces greenhouse gas emissions from energy use, while also limiting vulnerability to power disruptions. Similarly, storm water infiltration systems help reduce the likelihood of on-site flooding, while drought resistant landscaping conserves water and helps improve a site’s resilience to anticipated periods of drought.

Sustainability design guidelines for the Lower Mainland

The Lower Mainland Health Organization’s (LMHO) Energy and Environmental Sustainability (EES) team outlines these kinds of co-benefits in the Sustainability Design Guidelines they provide to planners, designers, and architects when they develop new facilities or undertake large-scale renovations. Each of the LMHOs also has an energy management team who track, reduce, and offset carbon emissions, in line with provincial requirements for all public sector organizations.

In addition, the LMHO’s Climate Resilience and Adaptation Program carried out climate resilience assessments on five health campuses, in early 2016, to better understand how to reduce climate risks and increase resilience at the community level. The Program aims to assess 50% of core sites by 2020 and develop site resilience plans to prepare for and respond to specific climate hazards in their region.

It’s clear that the work to build low carbon resilience within our health systems is not a straight forward path. However, according to the World Health Organization, it is a path that can lead to “sustained improvements in population health, despite an unstable climate.” And, more and more, it is a path shared by many other organizations.

For more information

To learn more about how you can be involved in healthcare’s response to climate change, check out the Green+Leaders program here.

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