When we think of healthcare systems (HCS), we imagine a network of people, institutions, and resources working diligently to meet our health needs. Yet, a pressing question emerges: Is our healthcare infrastructure robust enough to support our net-zero future?
Feeling the Heat: Climate Change and HCS
Climate change affects us all. Its impact is wide-ranging, from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases to injuries from extreme weather events. In an ironic twist, the healthcare sector, which treats patients impacted by climate change, is responsible for a significant 4% of global emissions, according to the World Economic Forum. It’s a classic case of the rescuer becoming part of the problem.
Extreme weather events can disrupt healthcare delivery and supply chains. Hospital infrastructure often crumbles under heatwaves, storms, floods, and wildfires. These harsh conditions can cause technology and equipment failure, medicine shortages, and hindered functionality, with recovery and repair taking months or even years.
Seizing the Climate Opportunity
Despite these challenges, climate change presents a silver lining for the healthcare sector. By adopting decarbonization and adaptation strategies, healthcare providers can climate-proof their infrastructure and significantly lower operational costs.
Technology, like telemedicine and remote monitoring, can boost resilience and efficiency by reducing emissions and maintaining care delivery during a climate shock. Drones, too, can be life-savers, transporting emergency supplies when traditional routes are impassable.
Healthcare providers can also tap into environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) or sustainability-linked loans, subsidies, and tax incentives, facilitating easier access to funding opportunities. Plus, engaging in ESG-related activities can lower insurance costs due to a decreased risk profile.
Not only that, sustainability initiatives attract talent and boost workforce morale, improving the overall performance of the healthcare provider. Such initiatives foster community resilience, making climate-driven healthcare needs more manageable.
Applying TCFD to HCS
Standardized frameworks like the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) can help healthcare providers understand, assess, and disclose climate risks and opportunities. Although TCFD isn’t designed specifically for healthcare or life sciences, its simplicity and adaptability make it a leading climate reporting framework.
With TCFD, healthcare providers can quantify the potential impacts of physical risks driven by climate and weather changes and transition risks linked to the shift to a low-carbon economy. Moreover, TCFD allows organizations to understand climate-related opportunities. For publicly listed healthcare providers, alignment with TCFD recommendations can improve their ability to meet evolving disclosure requirements.
Confronting Climate Challenges
Even with these steps, healthcare facilities face significant hurdles. The physical damage from climate-related events like heatwaves, storms, floods, and wildfires can be monumental. Access to patient records can be lost, medical equipment can fail, and patient care may be compromised.
Besides, climate shocks and stresses strain resources and increase costs. The mounting healthcare needs, coupled with infrastructure and equipment damage, can result in lost revenue and increased costs for care during crises. For example, hospitals wrecked by Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Michael had to close, leading to bankruptcies despite spending millions on repairs.
Moreover, the decarbonization requirements and regulations will increase costs and liability risks. The healthcare sector’s substantial carbon footprint means it is likely to be targeted by climate mitigation regulations. Noncompliance can lead to lawsuits, as seen in New Orleans’ Memorial Medical Center’s case following Hurricane Katrina.