The Breath of life

Jeff Thompson

Jeff Thompson

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Jeffrey E Thompson is Executive Advisor and Chief Executive Officer, Emeritus at Gundersen Health System. Thompson is a trained pediatric intensivist and neonatologist, and served as Gundersen’s Chief Executive Officer from 2001 to 2015. After completing his professional training in 1984, Thompson came to Gundersen with a desire to care for patients and to teach. He was asked to serve on Gundersen’s boards beginning in 1992 and was chairman of the board from 2001 to 2014.

Boldly leading on environmental improvement gives Healthcare a great opportunity to improve the health of our communities, distinguish our organisations, save money and inspire the next generation. Clinicians, hospitals, regions and whole countries are making significant progress in energy, supplies, waste management, and food across Asia, the US and Europe.

Over 5 million die every year, often in our care, of air quality issues. Millions more of water, soil, and food contamination. What is our role as healthcare providers in addressing these major areas of poor health?

Many in our industry now realise that we need to move more rapidly from being leaders in taking care of sick people…to being leaders in keeping them healthy. Environmental issues are a major determinant of our patient’s health outside our hospitals and clinics. In addition to the millions that die, many times that suffer needlessly, struggle in school, lose work opportunities, or have poor birth outcomes because of the pollution around them. Not only have we not solved this problem, we often contribute to toxin burden by our energy utilisation, waste management or purchasing choices.

Leading on health is not only a major moral responsibility it is a great opportunity for us to truly live our mission, accomplish multiple distinguishing milestones ahead of our competitors, be an inspirational workplace for our current and future employees, and develop a portfolio of credibility to inspire our community partners. Fortunately, we do not have to feel we need to take this on alone.

The Paris accord was signed by 190 countries, one of the greatest showings of heads of state ever. It was a clear declaration that we’re not doing nearly as
well as we could and that all countries need to make a commitment to do better. Most countries have followed up with a subsequent commitment at Katowice Poland with agreement on rules and goals.

National efforts vary greatly by country but one of the most promising is admitting there is a big problem. The United State, China, and India have some of the largest economies and contribute the most to greenhouse gas emissions. In Beijing last year, a senior health official pointed out that they lose over 1 million Chinese every year to air pollution. In India a public report pointed out that pollution is second only to malnutrition as a public health problem. Great condor on the part of these very populous countries to say there is a problem and we plan to address it.

The approach to these very important issues varies immensely within countries and regions. China has a very strong national approach to decrease their dependency on coal by reportedly installing a football field of solar and two major wind turbines every hour for the last two years. India on the other hand has had an emphasis on a much more local approach where individual clinicians have written prescriptions for clean air and clean water to help develop public support to improve the quality of those vital elements. Kenya has taken it so far as to pass a constitutional amendment declaring all its people have a right to clean air and clean water.

Every one of our local communities have its own set of issues that provide a wonderful opportunity for the health system serve its mission, distinguish itself and prove we can use a broad array of partnerships to improve the well-being of the whole community. Here are a few examples:

In Taiwan the Tzu Chin health system is using food as a medicine to improve their patients and the local economy at the same time. Their no meat approach to food service has decreased the greenhouse gas emissions and the sourcing from the region has decreased transportation costs and the effects on the environment1.

In Seoul, the Yonsei University Health System2 under the leadership of Dr DongChun SHIN have made great progress on the goals towards waste reduction, treatment, safer disposal, and support to green and healthy hospital design and construction.

Indonesia Hospital Association is a very important connector for more than 1,234 hospitals, They, like many others, have chosen to partner with the international organisation Healthcare Without Harm and were a founding member of the global Green and Health Hospital initiatives of Asia3.

Even specialty centres can help lead this work. The Philippine Heart Center has made great strides in everything from energy to sewage disposal and they have also often taken on the role of teacher for other healthcare and community organisations4.

There is some old thinking that being more environmentally sound could hurt business, but many places across the globe have found was to improve their finances, decrease pollution and improve the local economy. Even major investor are seeing the opportunity, billionaire Anand Mahindra in September said he felt that addressing sustainability issues was the greatest economic opportunity of our century5.

World health organisation has made it very critical part of their sustainability goals for building communities in both urban and rural areas across the world6 (big set of block graphic that is widely used), And the world bank and the U.N. development fund have both included sustainability measures into their applications for future funding.

A frequently asked question with all this activity is what is going on in the United States? Despite the current president’s high profile disagreement with the Paris accord and infatuations with coal, more than 400 mayors of major cities in the US and 17 governors (making up almost half of the total GDP of the country) have publicly pledged to follow Paris Climate guidelines. Healthcare organisations have also leaned in on the effort with over 1000 working with Practice Green Health7 to improve health and the environment. The website can show you many examples of successful organisations that also lowered the cost of care and markedly improved the environment. One of its members, the Gundersen Health System8 is an example of improving the local economy, lowering the greenhouse gas emissions over 90 per cent and saving money at the same time. On an international scale, Healthcare Without Harm organisation which is present in over 50 countries around the world representing thousands of hospitals and clinics all committed to improving the health of the environment while sustaining their work as healthcare provider

This may seem like a daunting task at first but it is quite easy. If you go to the healthcare without harm website9 you will find many examples of organisations connecting to the community and starting to decrease their impact on the environment. As you will see, many get started by purchasing locally, working with local business coalitions or thinking differently about food water and air quality issues.

For longer-term planning, the World Health Organization, the World Bank and the U.N. Development Fund all have planning strategies to help communities or individual healthcare organisations develop a more sustainable longer plans to thrive as an organisation as well as improve the wellbeing of your region.

The moral imperative to improve the health and wellbeing of our communities can be combined with a financial path forward that also includes less stress on the environment we must live and breathe in. In addition this approach will help you build strong partnerships in the community and recruit and retain the next generation of committed staff and leaders.


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