HAP Blog

What a Changing Climate Means for Health Care

Taking the ‘big picture’ on climate change

December 14, 2022

Our climate is changing. With increases in greenhouse gases and the destruction of forestry among a host of other causes, climate change has become a mainstay in the news and in our lives.

When I talk to people about climate change, I always remind them that climate and weather are two different things. The weather—the United States Geological Survey notes—refers to short-term atmospheric conditions, while climate relates to the weather of a region over a long period of time. This is a good starting point to help people understand the challenges we face.

As emergency managers, we have to consider the threats on the horizon, and those that pose larger, systemic risks. This helps us be ready for the patients in the hospital, and those that may need care over time. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how climate change affects our overall emergency preparedness.

Understanding the trend

We have all noticed more frequent severe weather and even an increased number of disasters during recent years. A recent report showed that about 90 percent of U.S. counties have experienced a federal climate disaster between 2011–2021, with some having as many as 12 disasters during that time.

In Pennsylvania, there have been nine federal disaster declarations, and six alone in Northampton and Sullivan counties. All but one disaster is tropical weather or flooding related.

So what does this mean for health care? More climate hazards and weather events will affect health outcomes and hospital care over time.

The connection between weather and care

Weather events can trigger emergency responses from hospitals, but we don’t always think about the second-order effects.

When a hurricane causes wind damage to homes, there are immediate hazards, such as residential destruction, evacuation, and possible exposure to flood waters. The response phase to these crises focuses on the short-term outcomes, such as displacement, rebuilding, and sewage overflow.

The damage from storms also can lead to hidden health effects that only become clear over time. A storm-damaged home with mold creates a high-risk environment for respiratory illnesses. We also know residential storm damage causes stress, which can lead to long-term concerns for mental and physical health. Even during rebuilding, there is the increased risk of injury, which we have seen several weeks after Hurricane Ian impacted Florida.

What’s next?

Put simply: we have to continue monitoring the way climate and weather impact the health of our communities.

Tracking the increase in climate-related disasters is a core part of emergency management. We must follow the trends within our own communities and prepare accordingly. In the big picture, we are seeing a broader regulatory focus to slow the progression of climate change, but we need to prepare for the world as it exists now—and into the future.

What we can do as a hospital community is plan for the increased impacts of weather-related disasters, which may ultimately increase patient volumes for years to come. We also have to connect with our communities to understand the hidden effects we might not be able to see when we’re in the eye of the storm.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to prepare for weather emergencies, contact me or HAP’s Emergency Management team for more information.

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