Climate action in healthcare is my new year’s resolution

Reed A. Omary, MD

  • Reed Omary is a radiologist in Nashville.

At the start of the New Year, people decide to make changes. Every year millions fail. I won’t be one of them.

I decided to raise awareness about climate change in health care. Doctors and nurses are good at caring for patients.

To continue this mission, we must also become good at taking care of the planet. Let us decide that climate care is health care.

There is enough talk of integrating climate awareness into daily action and of guiding our patients, colleagues and institutions into a planetary mindset.

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Leadership in healthcare is about influence, not control

Perhaps a long time ago, in the heyday of medicine, people followed the orders of their doctors and nurses. It is more likely that this day never really existed.

A doctor takes x-rays with a patient via a telehealth appointment.

After all, healthcare is not like the military where people just follow orders. If they did, smoking would not pose a major public health challenge.

COVID-19 is a useful paradigm. Where would we be if people wore masks and got vaccines on our first request?

Instead, we had to help convince people that their choices affect the health of others. Fortunately, at least 79% of eligible Americans have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. We have learned that not everyone will listen. Some will cry out in protest, but our work must continue.

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Being a doctor is the most trusted profession in the world – according to 64% of those polled in the Ipsos 2021 Reliability Index. For reference, only 10% considered politicians to be trustworthy. It gives me hope for the climate.

Now is the time for healthcare workers to harness their well-deserved confidence in explaining how climate change will affect the future well-being of our patients, their children, and all future generations.

As an industry, healthcare produces 8.5% of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions. According to the World Health Organization, air pollution from fossil fuels caused $ 2.8 trillion in health and economic costs in 2018 alone.

The vast scale of climate care is intimidating. No one can do it alone. Political soccer balls distract from the opportunities we have in our personal and clinical lives.

If you’ve ever thought to yourself “I’m just one person, what can I do” or wondered why you should reduce your carbon footprint if others aren’t, this is the wrong state of spirit. Clinicians are compelled to serve.

In the Hippocratic Oath, we accepted the underlying principle of “do no harm first”. Climate change is widening existing disparities in health and social equity. Harming our planet harms our patients.

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Health care starter pack for tackling the climate crisis

1. Educate others

We all know that the first step in solving a problem is to recognize that there is a problem.

Our medical education infrastructure – nursing or medical school or biomedical sciences – can begin to teach how climate change affects health and well-being. We can each incorporate this into our local and national meetings.

Omary reed

I do both. In my role as a radiology leader at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, we have dedicated a Big Round to climate. In my role in a national radiology society, we have made climate change and sustainability the topic of the next annual meeting.

Each is the first example of centering the climate in this place. The Grand Rounds were one of the busiest and most engaging events we’ve had.

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2. Keep asking questions

Healthcare is full of people who are natural fixers. Let us apply the Socratic method. By using our questions, we can encourage others to reframe existing services from a climate perspective.

For example, telehealth has become an essential part of care during a pandemic, and it is helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from travel. What are the other victories for the double patient and the climate?

Spice up the committees by asking questions about the climate at the next meeting. After a speaker discussed the burgeoning field of home health care, I asked if caregiver vehicles would be electric. The answer, of course, was “not now, we hadn’t considered” and so on.

We can then continue with more questions and continue asking them.

3. Integrate into daily management practices

Every day in hospitals, outpatient clinics and diagnostic testing centers, we make decisions about products and equipment. Too often we are on autopilot.

Decide to consider the environmental impact of purchases. If two products are interchangeable in terms of safety, efficiency and cost, then buy the one with the smallest environmental footprint.

Ask suppliers to share their sustainability and circular design strategy. If we all do this, suppliers will think about how to reduce their environmental impact.

During the pandemic, I watched with admiration the power of individuals to influence others. It often starts with the choices people make and talk about. When done right, that influence can grow exponentially – its own contagion for change.

Not to speak is a vote for the status quo. My resolution is to view climate care as health care. I am committed to finding ways to integrate our planet into my practice and into my leadership.

I hope you will join me. Humanity needs us.

Reed Omary is a radiologist in Nashville.

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