The health care sectors’ oath to “do no harm” cannot solely focus on treating the mass of patients descending through their doors amidst a pandemic, heatwave, or disastrous hurricane. If the sector is to remain viable, it must play a far larger role — as an anchor in their community addressing the conditions that perpetuate these public health disasters. The pandemic led to innovation, but the long-term commitment by the health care sector and enhanced collaboration for this new reality are just getting underway.
The Biden-Harris Administration has committed to addressing climate change by mobilizing “a whole-of-government approach to unleash economic opportunities, create good jobs, and advance environmental justice.” To succeed, the U.S. health care sector must join this strategy. Their supply chain, representing 70 percent of their footprint, is a key place to start.
Decarbonizing the supply chain can reduce both climate and financial impacts for the health care sector, especially as it looks for strategies to recover from the blow of the pandemic. To decarbonize, manufacturers will need to develop new products that are non-toxic, reusable or recyclable, low-carbon, and durable. In order for manufacturers to do this, there needs to be large and widespread demand — like demand from the U.S. health care sector which represents 18 percent of U.S. GDP and over $500 billion in annual spending.
A new initiative that launched in June, the Impact Purchasing Commitment (IPC), could be a vehicle to kickstart collating this demand. Developed through a partnership between Health Care Without Harm and the Healthcare Anchor Network, the IPC defines purchasing goals for the sector that will direct their spending while creating a coordinated, data-driven movement towards healthy, equitable, and climate-resilient local economies. The commitment is already gaining momentum with 12 health systems signed on.
Health care’s purchasing power can be strategically targeted for sweeping changes. Sustainable procurement can extend deeply into supply chains, focusing on safer materials, local and sustainable food, plant-forward menus, waste and toxicity reduction, and water conservation. Supply chain choices can harness the sectors’ spend to address social determinants of health by supporting local economies, strengthening institutions in the event of natural disasters and social crises, and creating wealth for current and future generations. Leading health care organizations are pursuing health equity through livable wages, education, housing, and job creation in the surrounding community. The IPC serves as a critical tool to address key determinants of a healthy community — outlining actions for supply chain diversity, local economies, and environmental sustainability.
This collective action could not come at a more opportune time. As the public health crises of the pandemic, racism, and climate change have ravaged our global communities and health care systems, hospitals are already stepping up to act. Last month Health Care Without Harm and the U.N.’s Climate Champions launched the Race to Zero campaign for health care, showcasing institutions from six continents joined together to halve their emissions by 2030 through the Health Care Climate Challenge. Additionally, Health Care Without Harm’s new report, the Global Road Map for Health Care Decarbonization, charts a path towards zero emissions for the health sector — specifically calling out a transformation of the supply chain as essential for success.
The pandemic required a different level of response and teamwork. Innovation was a result of enhanced connectivity within a health care organization. People who never worked together stood side by side in the command center, cafeterias became a new patient unit, local partners manufactured personal protective equipment, and food was delivered to exhausted workers.
The next generation of health care calls for continued focus on teamwork and projects with multi-operational departments collaborating, like those in supply chain, food, community outreach, clinical management, and the local business community.
Sustainable and equitable purchasing is a core strategy for health. It will require health care to commit to action, pairing hard data with the stories of what works to capture hearts and minds to empower their peers to unite for the health and equity of all people. While change is hard, by working together with humility and bravery, health care organizations can lead the way.
Gary Cohen has been a pioneer in the environmental health movement for more than 30 years, founding Health Care Without Harm, Practice Greenhealth, and Greenhealth Exchange. He serves on several boards, including Health Leads and Coming Clean. A MacArthur Fellow, Cohen has been recognized by the White House, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Skoll Foundation, the Huffington Post, and many more for his efforts to transform the health sector to become environmentally sustainable.