By Emily May, Assistant Manager, Deloitte Centre for Health Solutions and Dylan Powell, Research Analyst, Deloitte Centre for Health Solutions
Thursday 7th of April is World Health Day which aims to raise the profile of key issues impacting healthcare globally. This year’s World Health Day is aimed at tackling a global issue that has risen up the priority list of challenges, namely ‘Our Planet, Our Health’ and focuses on the need for urgent actions to keep humans and the planet healthy by fostering a global movement to create societies focused on well-being.1 The World Health Organisations (WHO) has described climate change as the 21st century’s greatest threat to global health and tackling it the greatest opportunity. At the same time the COVID-19 pandemic has provided an inescapable reminder of the interrelationships between climate change, health and wellbeing and the economic prosperity of our societies. This week’s blog in honour of World Health Day, explores these interrelationships in more detail and considers what actions might help improve the health and wellbeing of our societies.
The climate crisis is a health crisis
The evidence is stark and growing that climate change and human health are inextricably linked. Human activities are driving fundamental changes to the biosphere and disrupting many of our planet’s natural systems. Warmer climates are increasing the risk of severe weather, air pollution and drought, all of which directly and indirectly can impact the health of communities. While climate change does not discriminate, the impacts disproportionately affect historically marginalised populations.
The increase in air pollution in both developed and developing areas of the world is staggering with over 90 per cent of the world breathing polluted air, causing 13 million deaths from environmental effects every year.2 Air pollution has also been linked with mental illnesses such as depression, dementia, and anxiety. In addition, heat waves have been linked with increased rates of hospital admissions for mental disorders. Moreover, extremes in temperature also contribute to broader ecosystem disruption, such as droughts, with more than one third of global heat-related deaths estimated to be attributable to climate change.3,4 These factors can also have a significant impact on businesses. Lost productivity as a result of trauma, depression and anxiety is estimated to cost the global economy $1 trillion each year.5
These tangible consequences aren’t short lived; some have predicted the world is heading for mortality rates equivalent to the COVID-19 crisis every year by 2050 unless action is taken.6 The health research community is now echoing the WHO’s assessment in acknowledging that climate change is the greatest threat to global public health, according to an unprecedented joint statement in September 2021 by more than 200 medical health journals, calling for urgent action and recognising the unequivocal science.7
Our research for our Future of Public Health report series also identified the irrefutable link between health and the environment, and the threat to public health posed by climate change.8 Meanwhile the British Medical Association also noted that if bold and decisive action is not taken immediately, the impact of climate change in the near future will wreak havoc on the planet and take an immeasurable toll on the health of people across the globe.9
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the potential catastrophic impact of a global health emergency, but also demonstrated the power of collective efforts when people share a common purpose in tackling a health threat. The urgency of the climate crisis justifies the need for a similarly collective effort to be directed at taking direct actions. The question however, is given the scale of the task, what are the most promising actions that could be taken today that will benefit our health and the planet concurrently?
Viewing challenges as opportunity: How healthcare organisations can take proactive action
The recently launched US Centre for Health Solutions report ‘Why climate resilience is key to building the health care organisation of the future’ highlighted strategies to mitigate risks, build resilience and contribute to climate action (see Figure 1):
Figure 1. Addressing climate risks requires proactive change across the health care system
Source: Deloitte Analysis, 2022
Mitigation – Mitigating existing impacts, by investing in new technology, and introducing new business models are among the ways stakeholders can build resilience, while preventing further warming. For example, an organisation can reduce its contribution to the root causes of climate change by reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through activities such as using renewable energy, reducing waste and water usage, and adopting greener procurement policies and low-carbon transport delivery systems.
Adaption – Developing strategies which improve resiliency and prepare a company to better meet evolving care needs amidst a changing climate. For example, introducing financial incentives for health systems to pursue sustainability activities, investments in climate-resilient infrastructure.
Transformation – Pioneering of new products, services and models that meet future health care needs while also proactively promoting health and wellness. The digital transformation of healthcare through innovative technologies and care models have become a key part of health care investments in recent years, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic; technologies such as remote monitoring and virtual consultations can pave the way for new healthcare delivery models that also providing health systems, and life sciences companies with capabilities to address their contributions to climate change.10
Achieving a climate positive Future of Health ecosystem
For the health ecosystem to benefit from both the future health of our planet and people, a future-looking industry-wide approach needs to be adopted that is also integrated into every enterprise’s strategy with resilience, investment, commitment, and high levels of innovation. This is a significant undertaking, but strategic steps can be undertaken to begin the journey towards a climate resilient health system. Deloitte’s US Centre for Health Solutions has identified five near-term activities that can help the move towards greater sustainability:
- Set climate resiliency as an enterprise-wide strategy: Align across key stakeholders on strategic priorities for addressing climate change and how they fit into the organisation’s overarching vision.
- Create a role focused on climate resiliency: Dedicate a C-suite leader to a role committed to driving the organisation’s sustainability agenda and addressing the causes and impacts of climate change. Beyond a specific focus on climate and environment, this role can provide leadership over your organisation’s broader ESG portfolio.
- Take a comprehensive snapshot of your business: Expand your data aperture and competencies to develop a strong understanding of its own carbon footprint, climate-related health challenges of its geographies, and associated vulnerabilities.
- Assess your risks: Conduct a deep dive into not only the organisation’s own operations, but also those of its suppliers and partners, and the health risks of the population it serves.
- Look towards the future: Understand not only your organisation’s current climate risks, but how those risks will evolve over the coming decade.11
The pandemic has exposed the critical importance of health and wellbeing and its link to the prosperity of our economies and the resilience of our planet. Even if the impact of the pandemic continues to abate the challenges on planetary health will continue to increase as does the risk of future pandemics.
Our hopes are that World Health Day 2022 can provide an important milestone in the journey to improved human and planetary health. Despite significant progress over the past century in eradicating disease and improving wellbeing, the impending climate crisis is now endangering this progress. Now more than ever there are several essential questions to ask when building climate mitigation, adaptation, and transformation strategies in all sectors. Holistic, concurrent thinking about climate change and health needs to be adopted, while ensuring the priority areas and investments are apposite to achieve a sustainable ‘Future of Health’ ecosystem.
5 World Health Organization (2019). Mental health in the workplace. Retrieved from: https://www.who.int/news-room/commentaries/detail/mental-health-in-the-workplace