Preparing hospitals and health systems for climate change

February 23, 2023—In early February, the Boston area experienced historically low temperatures, causing four local emergency rooms to close due to flooding from burst pipes. A February 19 article in The Boston Globe reported on the closures and explored a larger question: As climate change continues, and extreme weather events become more common, how will hospitals and health systems cope?

Several experts from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health offered their insights in the article.

“Whether these cold snaps are a function of greenhouse gases or not, they give us an indication, a canary in the coal mine view, of what a destabilized climate means for access to care for people who need it,” said Aaron Bernstein, interim director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment (C-CHANGE). “In this case a broken pipe [affected just] the emergency room. But what if the power goes out, or the roads are flooded around a hospital?”

Margaret Kruk, professor of health systems, said hospitals cannot and should not manage climate-related problems alone.

“It’s a bigger interest than simply for that local hospital. It is the business of the state to get involved and help nudge leaders to plan or try to secure other sources of funding to make those capital investments,” she said.

“There is an imperative for new construction to build beyond code and take into account what climate change looks like,” added Paul Biddinger, chief preparedness and continuity officer at Mass General Brigham and director of the Emergency Preparedness Research, Evaluation and Practice (EPREP) Program at Harvard Chan School. “A lot of hospitals can’t get access to [climate] data, [and] we need to make that data more available. We have to require them to use that data to look forward and not back.”

In a national survey of primary care clinic staff across the U.S., 81% reported that their clinic had been disrupted by the weather in the last three years, and fewer than 20% were confident in their clinic’s emergency preparedness around climate, according to the article.

“The health system is under tremendous strain, and you add on these additional strains, it’s a recipe for great challenge,” said Gaurab Basu, health equity fellow at C-CHANGE. “We will need some systematic approaches and a vision of how to be responsive.”

Read the Boston Globe article (available to subscribers): In one frigid weekend, four emergency rooms closed. Are hospitals ready for a changing climate?

For stories of climate hope and action, subscribe to The Climate Optimist newsletter.