President of the National Academy of Medicine visits USC to discuss health care’s carbon footprint

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Bokie Muigai

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December 15, 2022
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“We want to provide better care to our patients, but healthcare is a big contributor to carbon emissions that adversely impact the health of people as well as the planet, so why not change the way we practice?” ~Victor Dzau, MD

The U.S. health care system is one of the global leaders in scientific advancements and generates a fifth (~20%) of the country’s GDP. “Something that’s less well-known to all of us, is that the health care sector is a major contributor to climate change,” shared Victor Dzau, MD, the President of the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) during his visit to Keck School of Medicine of USC.

President Folt makes opening remarks ahead of Victor Dzau, MD. (Photo/USC)

Dzau, an internationally acclaimed physician-scientist, presented on ‘Decarbonizing the Healthcare Industry,’ during the Dean’s Transformative Lecture Series and Grand Rounds in Population and Public Health. President Carol L. Folt, PhD, and Senior Vice President for Health Affairs Steven Shapiro, MD, welcomed him to USC and gave opening remarks. Dzau spoke about the health care industry’s responsibility to addressing its carbon footprint through bold, transformative, and interdisciplinary approaches. He shared that for two years, NAM brought together the best minds to formulate a ‘grand challenge on climate change, human health and equity,’ which aims to transform systems that contribute to a lifetime of change.

The health care sector emits approximately 8.5% of U.S carbon emissions, generating approximately 25% of global health sector emissions, which in turn contribute to global warming. The carbon footprint of the healthcare industry is categorized into 3 scopes of emissions including: operations of health care facilities; sources of energy, heating, and cooling; and supply chain of health care services and goods. Climate change has fueled a public health crisis, driven by air pollution, an increase in vector-borne diseases, and the disruption of water and food supplies.

The Department of Population and Public Health Sciences is committed to addressing the adverse impacts of climate change on human health, by markedly reducing emissions through principles and tools of sustainability science.

Panelists with Dzau as he discusses the health care industry’s carbon footprint. (Photo/USC)

Howard Hu, MD, MPH, ScD, Flora L. Thornton Department Chair of Population and Public Health Sciences, and Rob McConnell, MD, chief of the Division of Environmental Health, have explored the challenges to overcoming the health care industry’s impact in a review article published in collaboration with USC faculty from Architecture (Bhavna Sharma, PhD), Viterbi (Najmedin Meshkati, PhD) and Dornsife College. As members of the President’s Working Group on Sustainability at USC, Hu and McConnell underscored the adverse effects of climate change attributed to the health sector to the committee. They proposed recommendations on how to incorporate sustainable efforts within Keck medical enterprise and Keck School of Medicine of USC to lessen their environmental impact.

“Given that our faculty are amongst the nation’s leaders in investigating the adverse impacts of environmental pollution on health, and the health sector has such a large carbon emissions footprint, it makes perfect sense for us to extend our work to lead on research that sheds light on the best ways to reduce that footprint and protect health.”

Hu, who moderated the Grand Rounds event, in collaboration with other faculty has worked with SVP for Health Affairs Shapiro to have Keck School of Medicine of USC join Practice Greenhealth,  an association with over 1,000 hospitals committed to ‘advancing sustainable operations and transforming health care.’ Additionally, McConnell initiated a research project to use Practice Greenhealth’s large database of sustainability metrics to identify best practices for its members.

“The Practice Greenhealth dataset is a potential model for a national reporting system in the U.S. that would collect information on health care facilities’ carbon footprint and provide guidance on best practices to reduce the footprint with the largest return on investment,” says McConnell.

Dzau commended USC’s efforts to implement initiatives and set targets that address unsustainable practices. “Your goals and your visions for reaching decarbonization net zero through education, research, practice and now the health system, are one of a kind.” He emphasizes that the health care profession takes an oath to do no harm, and made the case that by reducing carbon emissions, we can improve the health of populations, and improve patient care.

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