Jessica WolffToday's guest bloggers are Director Jessica Wolff (left) and Associate Director Sarah Spengeman (right) of Climate and Health at Health Care Without Harm, which works to transform health care worldwide so that it reduces its environmental footprint, becomes a community anchor for sustainability and a leader in the global movement for environmental health and justice.

Sarah SpengemenIn the early morning hours of October 9, 2017, fast-moving wildfires threatened the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Santa Rosa, California. As the fires approached the hospital campus, staff courageously worked to evacuate more than 120 patients, even as their own nearby homes burned.

Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital was also forced to evacuate 70 patients, including eight infants from the NICU. Neither hospital suffered structural damage, but the October Tubbs Fire proved to be one of the worst in California history, killing 22 people and destroying more than 17,000 structures.

Just a few weeks before the fires in California, 12 percent of Florida hospitals were forced to close their doors to the public in advance of Hurricane Irma. When disaster strikes, hospitals are expected to be the last buildings standing and hospital-based clinicians the community’s trusted first-responders. But this is not always possible.

As average global temperatures rise due to climate change, storms and wildfires are growing more frequent and more severe. Now is the time for hospitals to invest in climate preparedness and community resilience.

In the wake of the historic 2017 storms and wildfires that devastated communities across the United States, Health Care Without Harm has released a new report. It clearly demonstrates that these kinds of investments not only save lives, but also protect a hospital’s financial viability.

The report uses case studies of hospitals impacted by extreme weather, as well as an analysis of billions of dollars in losses and the savings generated by investments in climate resilience. Called “Safe haven in the storm: Protecting lives and margins with climate-smart health care,” it demonstrates that the benefits of preparedness far outweigh the costs.

For example, during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, flooding damaged Texas Medical Center’s (TMC) emergency generators, causing a complete power outage. Clinicians and other support staff had to work by flashlight and ventilate patients by hand as more than 1,000 were evacuated. TMC suffered $2 billion in research losses alone, including data, tissue samples and research animals.

After the storm, TMC invested more than $50 million to upgrade infrastructure with sustainable and resilient design features, including an on-site combined heat and power plant, which eliminated dependence on Houston’s utility grid, while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Fast forward to Hurricane Harvey this past summer, one of the costliest disasters on record, which resulted in nearly $200 billion in damages. However, TMC’s investments paid off. Despite widespread flooding and power outages throughout the metropolitan area, the entire TMC medical campus remained operational and ready to serve a community in crisis.

At a time when the health care sector and hospitals are facing great financial uncertainty, hospital leaders must make strategic decisions about the allocation of limited resources. This report shows how investing in climate resilience can safeguard a hospital’s often fragile margins and allow it to provide uninterrupted medical care to the community in times of greatest need.

The report encourages hospital and health system leadership to play an active role in community preparedness planning, as well, while also advocating for policies at all levels of government to reduce climate risk.