Physicians Take Strong Stance on Climate Change

The American College of Physicians calls for action to mitigate climate change and urges doctors to make their own practices greener.

The American College of Physicians has issued a position paper on climate change that goes beyond dealing with its health effects—it also says the healthcare industry needs to look at its own environmental footprint and make some changes.

ACP “urges physicians to help combat climate change by advocating for effective climate change adaptation and mitigation policies, helping to advance a low-carbon health care sector, and by educating communities about potential health dangers posed by climate change,” said ACP President Wayne Riley in a statement. “We need to take action now to protect the health of our community’s most vulnerable members—including our children, our seniors, people with chronic illnesses, and the poor—because our climate is already changing and people are already being harmed.”

The paper encourages doctors to implement sustainable practices, such as improving energy efficiency and reducing motor vehicle use. It notes that the health sector is ranked second-highest in energy consumption. “Hospitals may have to operate 24 hours a day, and a lot of energy is used to keep the lights on, operate medical equipment, heat and cool the building, so there is substantial potential for improving energy efficiency,” said Ryan Crowley, senior associate of health policy at ACP.

Many physicians believe they are already treating patients for illnesses connected to climate change, the paper says. And it warns that further climate warming will worsen health problems due to cardiovascular, respiratory, and heat-related illnesses; infectious diseases like West Nile; and mental health disorders connected to natural disasters. The paper cites, for example, that nearly half of surveyed New Orleans residents affected by Hurricane Katrina reported anxiety mood disorder.

Climate change can also exacerbate problems around the globe with food production and quality, malnutrition, and water scarcity, ACP says, and people who are elderly, sick, or poor are especially vulnerable.

“ACP became involved in analyzing the health impacts of climate change and developing our policy paper at the request of our Board of Governors-elected leaders of our state and international chapters,” Crowley said. ACP’s Health and Public Policy Committee wrote the paper after reviewing studies, reports, and surveys on climate change and how it relates to human health.

“We were pleasantly surprised to find that addressing climate change can be a ‘win-win’ for the environment and human health,” Crowley said. “By encouraging active transportation like walking and cycling, we can increase physical activity and tackle cardiovascular disease. By switching to cleaner fuels, we can reduce air pollution and improve the quality of the air we breathe. Facilities can reap financial benefits by adopting energy-saving strategies.”

For doctors who want to make their practices more sustainable, Crowley noted that Health Care Without Harm and My Green Doctor provide guidance. For resources that are not healthcare-specific, he said the Energy Star program, Small Business Administration, U.S. Green Building Council, and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offer recommendations on green and energy-efficient products and buildings, recycling programs, and green transportation, and the EPA’s Center for Corporate Climate Leadership can help with measuring and managing greenhouse gas emissions.


Allison Torres Burtka

By Allison Torres Burtka

Allison Torres Burtka, a longtime association journalist, is a freelance writer and editor in West Bloomfield, Michigan. MORE

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