Climate change is happening – What can physicians do?

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Whether you see climate change as the biggest health threat or its greatest opportunity of the 21st century, there is no doubt that global warming is already making a significant difference to our health. That was one of the messages that emerged at the first part of My Hospital Footprint. This three-part series looks at hospitals’ carbon footprints and asks how we can reduce our impact on climate change.

Setting the stage

“We don’t have climate change; we have a climate emergency,” said family physician Dr. Larry Barzelai, chair of the B.C. chapter of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. “Greenhouse gas emissions from Canada’s health care system (directly and indirectly through their supply chains) represented approximately five per cent of the national total GHG emissions in 2015. Much of this comes from transportation systems and fossil fuel consumption that bring things to and from health care facilities. We also know that operating theatres have high energy demands, consumable throughputs, and waste volumes. There are food issues too. We need to use more plant-based and locally produced food in our hospitals.”

Hospitals and other health care facilities have traditionally not focused on sustainability, said Dr. Barzelai adding, “If the health care system doesn’t promote best health practices, who will?”

What VCH is doing

Dr. Barzelai’s co-presenter for the session was VCH Chief Medical Officer Dr. Patricia Daly.

“I believe we’ve reached a tipping point and the public is ready to make change,” she said. “The world around us is literally burning. We need to move beyond advocacy and act. Climate change is already happening, and while we need to continue to reduce GHG emissions, we also need to adapt to changes that are already here.”

Dr. Daly talked about B.C.’s Climate Change Accountability Act that requires public sector organizations to manage climate change risks. Vancouver Coastal Health’s mandate from the government includes aligning its operations with the government’s climate plan.

“The Lower Mainland Facilities Management team looks after over 100 VCH facilities from Richmond to Bella Bella and it takes a lot of energy to run them,” said Dr. Daly. “While our floor area has increased, VCH has actually seen an 18.6 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions since 2007.”

Dr. Daly also pointed to a three-year HealthADAPT grant VCH and Fraser Health have received to undertake a vulnerability assessment and strategic adaptation plan and steps that have come out of that.

What you can do

“The most important thing physicians can do is reduce unnecessary health procedures,” said Dr. Daly. She also noted that, where we can, physicians should seek vendors, products, and services that consider energy, water consumption, carbon and chemical emissions, and waste generation. We can also get involved with the BC Health Technology Assessment process, which considers environmental impacts in its decision making. Dr. Daly noted that addressing climate change has been identified as one of the Ministry of Health’s mandated priorities for all health authorities and that among the VCH Board members there are a number of champions on this issue.

Physicians attending the session had many questions regarding issues such as travel requirements for attending conferences, needed to maintain their academic appointments, and how best to challenge rules and regulations that demand more resources than may be necessary. Others expressed frustration about how to get support from VCH leadership with their ideas for GHG reductions and one suggested the need for a parallel organization with clout.

VCH board member Dr. Margaret McGregor chaired this session of My Hospital Footprint.

“Leadership on this needs to come from both above [the VCH board and senior staff] and below [groups like physicians, nurses and other VCH staff] for there to be change,” she said.

VPSA leaders present at the meeting pointed out that physicians can come together and work to form a task group through VPSA.

Next in the series

My Hospital Footprint continues February 27. Part 2 looks at Greening health care one team-based quality improvement project at a time. Register here by February 20. The third session on March 25 examines how hospitals can be leaders in climate change mitigation. Registration details will be posted here soon.

My Hospital Footprint is funded by Small Steps, Big Idea. If you have an idea for a project, please contact VPSA Project Manager Lina Abouzaid.

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