It is known that the health of the population is affected by climate change. One of the reasons is the changing weather patterns that directly or indirectly impact people’s well-being. The global temperature has already increased by 1.1°C, leading to more frequent and intense extreme weather events such as droughts, hurricanes, and heatwaves, causing thousands of deaths and economic losses equivalent to over 100 billion dollars in the region. Moreover, these events directly affect the population’s health, leading to respiratory diseases, vector-borne illnesses, exacerbation of chronic conditions, and mental health problems. Indirectly, these impacts affect water quality, air pollution, land use change, and ecological shifts.
The healthcare sector is responsible for 4.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with Latin America and the Caribbean contributing 6%. As mentioned in a recent publication by the IDB, if the healthcare sector were a country, it would be the fifth-largest emitter in the world.
The Opportunity: Health in the Climate Change Agenda
Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have already begun considering the impact of climate change on human health within their climate policies. Many countries in the region include measures and commitments for climate change adaptation in the healthcare sector in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement. Despite this significant progress, there is room for increased ambition. For instance, the IDB’s recent publication on health and climate change suggests incorporating measures in all sectors that directly or indirectly affect the healthcare sector, such as infrastructure, water, and agriculture. By doing so, additional climate co-benefits can be achieved concerning health. Moreover, countries in the region have the opportunity to include specific mitigation measures for the healthcare sector in their climate commitments, something that no NDC currently comprises. They can also establish or update national climate policies for health.
Multisectoral efforts by governments play a crucial role in leading a process that incorporates climate change adaptation and mitigation actions within the healthcare sector. To achieve this, it is essential to have a regulatory and administrative framework supported by incentives to meet each country’s NDC objectives.
What adaptation measures can countries consider to strengthen their healthcare systems?
Climate impacts directly affect people’s health; therefore, there is a need for a clear understanding of these effects on social dynamics and to strengthen healthcare systems and services to address them. Ultimately, it will be essential to work on the climate resilience of healthcare services. Leadership and governance are necessary to develop, implement, and report plans to address climate change. Let’s explore some recommendations:
- Expand healthcare information systems to strengthen health intelligence. Through research, the impacts of climate change on health can be understood, allowing the development of early warning systems to collect and analyze data for better crisis response, for example.
- Strengthen the regular response capacity of healthcare services to face the direct and indirect effects of climate change. Measures must be taken to sustainably enhance interventions and provide a healthcare response to extreme events like heatwaves, storms, etc. Programs like Chile’s Climate Change Adaptation Plan for Health aim to strengthen the healthcare sector’s capacity to respond to climate change by identifying measures to ensure the proper functioning of healthcare services and networks, among others.
- Increase the resilience of healthcare buildings and equipment to ensure operational continuity during adverse conditions. Changing climate and extreme weather events can disrupt the functioning of healthcare equipment and facilities and access to supplies or water. Effective healthcare technologies must be developed and employed to ensure the continuous provision of healthcare services.
- Prepare healthcare personnel to face the demands related to climate change. Healthcare personnel are the backbone of the healthcare system, and their preparedness is crucial in responding to climate and health crises. Therefore, it will be necessary to strengthen their capacities and access to information related to climate change, enabling them to fulfill their roles effectively.
- Reinforce funding to address the additional challenges posed by climate change. Responding to climate change will require increased spending on healthcare. A multi-year plan should be developed to quantify and prioritize investment resources that will help strengthen healthcare information systems, services, asset resilience, and support for personnel, among other aspects.
What mitigation measures can be considered to strengthen healthcare systems?
As mentioned, the carbon footprint of the healthcare sector is significant. Decarbonizing this sector involves implementing interventions in its facilities and operations. Let’s explore some of them:
- Green construction contributes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and enhances the financial sustainability of the healthcare system. Buildings and the construction sector accounted for 36% of final energy consumption and 39% of CO2 emissions in 2018. Infrastructure projects, particularly in the healthcare sector, present an excellent opportunity to efficiently utilize resources such as energy and water while lowering greenhouse gas emissions.
- The use of efficient medical equipment reduces energy consumption. Certification systems evaluate different characteristics and grant various labels. For instance, there have been certifications focusing on the energy consumption of medical equipment.
- Telehealth contributes to reducing the sector’s emissions. In addition to its benefits in patient care, telehealth offers advantages in clinical and non-clinical processes, coordination and information exchange, training, and communication. It also has environmental benefits, such as efficient resource use through interoperability of information systems and a reduction in visits to medical facilities.
- Organizing and operating healthcare services in integrated networks have the potential to reduce the carbon footprint. The organization and management of healthcare services in a network promote complementarity between establishments, leading to operational efficiencies and a reduction in the carbon footprint.
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