What health care is here for: White House Champion of Change Gary Cohen

Gary Cohen, White House Champion of ChangeView on Fickr.com

Yesterday I was honored to attend the White House Champion of Change ceremony as a guest of Gary Cohen, who’s the Founder of the Healthier Hospitals Initiative (HHI) (@HHIorg) , and President of Health Care Without Harm (@hcwithoutharm) and Practice Greenhealth (@pracgreenhealth).

As it says in this Practice Greenhealth press release

These individuals are being recognized for their stellar contributions and leadership in health care environmental sustainability, raising awareness about the potential health consequences of climate change, and helping their communities prepare for climate related health impacts.

and the program itself 

recognizes ordinary Americans who are doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.

This event was about the role of the medical community and our health system more broadly in protecting our health in a changing climate. As Gary and I spoke before the event started, we both agreed, the health system doesn’t have a role, it has THE role in protecting our health, always, in all ways.

There were two panels at the event, one on engaging the medical community on climate change, one on helping communities prepare and respond to climate change. 

On the medical community panel, were several physicians, nurses, (and a patient!) who have devoted a significant amount of their professional energy to serve inside and outside medical offices and hospitals to teach and inspire their communities and the nation around health. 

No twitter handles 🙁 – Feels lonely in the #GreenHC world View on Flickr.com

I’m going to admit, after hearing them I felt a little lonely on social media – they talked about social media, but I didn’t get the sense they are using it themselves to communicate and lead, and I wish they would. The White House didn’t publish any twitter handles 🙁 on the program. When Greg Matthews last analyzed this for me, we found that there aren’t enough physicians using social media to communicate about environmental stewardship. see: Do physicians tweet about environmental stewardship in health care? | Ted Eytan, MD.

And then Gary Cohen spoke on the second panel.

He concluded his short remarks with “What is health care here for?”

It’s the best question. Health care isn’t here to

  • Be more wasteful than the society it serves
  • Be more selective than the society it serves in who it serves
  • Be less caring than the society it serves

…and yet, it often is, not by intent, maybe by (poor) design

What I’ve learned from Gary and my own experience is that health care is not here to do any of those things, it doesn’t have to be, no one working in it wants it to be, and it doesn’t cost more money to not be those things.

So let’s not have health care be those things and support it in doing what it’s here for.

While I agree with the sentiment “talk to your patients about climate change” that was relayed, I also think that health professionals can work at a different level. They can change the health system they work in by enrolling them in the Healthier Hospitals Initiative (which is free), to change the health system to one that produces health all the time, instead of one that takes it away sometimes.

This is a space where health professionals at all levels are going to have a distinct impact because of the trust that their communities place in them. We’ll model the way, performance gets us the podium.

The Health System in the President’s Climate Plan

The President’s Climate Action plan (handy infographic here) has this statement about the health system:

This year and next, federal agencies will report on the impacts of climate change on other key sectors and strategies to address them, with priority efforts focusing on health, transportation, food supplies, oceans, and coastal communities.

Promoting Resilience in the Health Sector:

The Department of Health and Human Services will launch an effort to create sustainable and resilient hospitals in the face of climate change. Through a public-private partnership with the healthcare industry, it will identify best practices and provide guidance on affordable measures to ensure that our medical system is resilient to climate impacts. It will also collaborate with partner agencies to share best practices among federal health facilities. And, building on lessons from pilot projects underway in 16 states, it will help train public-health professionals and community leaders to prepare their communities for the health consequences of climate change, including through effective communication of health risks and resilience measures.

If you think about what health care is here for, this is an industry that’s more than a key sector when it comes to the impact of climate, and more than an industry of many that needs to be resilient.

Health care should be leading society in understanding what health is and how to achieve it. It’s not a key sector, it’s THE sector that leads the others. I think that’s what Gary meant when he said, “What is health care here for?”

Congratulations, Gary, and thanks to him and the other 10 Champions for Change who have high expectations for all of us, which they deserve to have, and which we in turn sign up to wildly exceed 🙂


Ted Eytan, MD