Catalyst for Payment Reform

High-Value Health Care Strategies That Are Also Good For the Environment

High-Value Health Care Strategies That Are Also Good For the Environment

Climate change is the greatest health concern of the 21stcentury. It threatens our national and global political, economic and social stability. It threatens the very existence of human life. Just recently, the United Nations released an alarming report on the impending effects of climate change. The takeaway? Global warming is happening a lot sooner than we thought. Think mass food shortages, wildfires, dying coral reefs, extreme heat, droughts, floods and plenty more atrocities within the next 20 years. The solution? Urgency.

The United States health care system is the size of the world’s fifth largest economy, valued at $3.3 trillion GDP. It’s also the world’s 7thlargest producer of carbon dioxide. As a significant contributor of carbon emissions, the US health care system is a significant contributor to the climate change trends that are undermining our global public health.

Addressing the U.S. health care system’s impact on our environment, righting the current wrongs, is both an opportunity and obligation of all stakeholders. The impending, detrimental impacts of climate change make a clear population health case for taking immediate action.

So, what can be done?

In the absence of national oversight, there is an opportunity for industry players to assume leadership and take action. About half of the United States’ health care-related carbon emissions are generated by provisions of care, and the other half are a result of the product and equipment manufacturing processes.

In 2016, the US Department of Energy (DOE) estimated that health care facilities are among the country’s most energy intensive buildings, producing at least twice the energy intensity and amount of carbon emissions as commercial office buildings. The DOE’s Hospital Energy Alliance, launched in 2009, saw members improve their energy efficiencies and consumption by 25%, saving more than $1 billion in energy bills annually.

Reducing wasteful medical care utilization, overutilization, and misuse can not only improve quality of care and help contain costs for employers; it can also help contain the carbon emissions associated with hospital use. Centers of Excellence and second opinion services can be helpful in this strategy. Hospitals and other health care facilities can also assume leadership by using less energy, becoming more energy efficient and even purchasing energy from renewable sources, adding their names to those of a select group of California hospitals that committed to being carbon neutral by 2020.

Employers and other health care purchasers can assist in this efficiency effort by considering a health system’s environmental mitigation strategy when pursuing a direct contracting arrangement, or by encouraging their health plans to adopt more sustainable practices in their operations. Telehealth and near-site clinics can play a role in reducing transportation needs for employees and their dependents seeking health care services. Finally, large companies can make mitigating the effects of climate change a priority through supply-chain enhancements or by organizing volunteer activities that can reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, like tree-planting.

Our health care system is considered cutting edge in so many ways. Whether it’s technological advancements, innovative oncology treatments and minimally invasive procedures, or experimentation with benefit and payment designs- the United States health care system is considered a global leader, yet there’s so much more we can do to do to help lessen the system’s impact on the environment and on climate change.  The first step in combat? Recognizing the urgency of the problem.

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