Preventing health care impacts on climate change

Anand Bhopal is a research fellow at the University of Bergen and a former Takem Fellow in International Health at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health.

What would you say to health professionals who feel overwhelmed by climate change?

Start small. You know your practice area and your patient population better than anyone. Search for your local specialty organization or regional group. Meet people who incorporate environmental considerations into quality improvement. Consider reducing health care overuse where you work by promoting disease prevention or developing policy guidelines for your specialty.

What you do may not make a big difference on the grand scale of climate change, but transformational change requires small steps a million times a day. Action inspires action.

You write about how climate change is changing the way people think about healthcare. What does that look like?

We’ve been taught that patient care is the first concern, but that concern extends beyond the patient in front of you, and trying to improve access and quality of care while reducing our carbon footprint requires new definitions of what quality means.

Not so long ago, economic costs were considered vulgar talk for medical professionals. Fast forward to 2023 and it’s pretty normal to talk about costs and fairness.

We can extend that thinking to climate impacts. Is it fair to provide extremely high-tech and polluting health care knowing that it causes climate problems elsewhere?

How worrisome is greenwashing – making claims about emissions reductions that don’t match action?

Greenwashing is pervasive in climate politics. I think, however, there is a sincere desire to do something in the healthcare sector. An oil or gas company saying they have a net zero program seems to contradict their values, but we shouldn’t be cynical about healthcare. we should support people who are trying.

Greenwashing isn’t always intentional. You can use your health care organization’s money to buy carbon offsets, but the long-term effectiveness of that approach is highly contested. Better to focus your energy on reducing emissions rather than paying for emissions offsets elsewhere.

But the threat of greenwashing should not be a reason for inaction. We don’t have time for that.

In this year Lancet Planet Health, you published a two-week module you developed on climate change for medical students. How important is education to reduce healthcare emissions?

When I was in medical school from 2008 to 2014, I remember going to my dean with a few colleagues and saying we want education on climate change and health. Fifteen years later, there are many people who demand it, and there are excellent courses at many universities, including Harvard. The problem is to organize the course in the right way.

Some health care providers, educators, and students are interested in the issues and want to do their part. I want to lift those people up. Those of us who have been privileged to take time away from clinical practice to work in the climate arena must see the role of our peer educators.

What is your ultimate hope?

My wish is that climate change is seen not as something for enthusiasts, but as an issue for everyone.

As I mentioned in the last comment, I co-wrote Journal of Medical EthicsI believe it is an ethical imperative for health care to take climate change seriously. If we choose to act first and quickly, it benefits us because we make carbonation on our own terms.

We are talking about a big global challenge. There is no rulebook. We will deal with climate change throughout our careers, and we can do it for better or for worse. It’s up to us to shape the future.

Stephanie Dochen is the Feature Content and Multimedia Manager for the HMS Office of Communications and External Affairs

Image: Aluna1/iStock/Getty Images Plus

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