Preparing health care facilities for climate change and extreme weather

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Climate change and natural disaster preparedness are topics of growing interest and concern for health care facilities in Canada. These are two of the most critical areas in which facility planning and management need to take into account how a health care facility relates to its external environment.

Last October, Hurricane Sandy provided a stern test of emergency management and recovery capabilities for health services on the Atlantic coastline. One notable success story of facility preparedness that emerged after the storm was the use of combined heat and power (CHP)/cogeneration systems, which offer environmental benefits through greater energy efficiency, by several New England and New York hospitals. Though the local power grid was battered by Sandy, South Oaks nursing home and hospital in Long Island was able to pre-emptively disconnect from the grid and rely on CHP to provide power until the utility had time to recover.

Paul Cheliak, Director of Market Development at the Canadian Gas Association suggests that one of the often overlooked benefits of CHP is that these systems offer customers greater reliability – something important to institutions like hospitals.  “While the energy efficiency and payback numbers of CHP are improving with new technology and low natural gas market prices, it is the underground natural gas pipeline infrastructure and the corresponding resiliency of the technology that offers added reassurance for consumers during critical times of need”.

Though most of Canada was spared the brunt of Hurricane Sandy, such extreme weather events are neither a distant memory nor an unrealistic expectation for many regions of Canada. Individual weather events have a complex network of causes, with climate change having a major impact on weather trends, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns: “a changing climate leads to changes in the frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration and timing of extreme weather and climate events, and can result in unprecedented extreme weather and climate events.”

The effects of climate change extend beyond the possibilities of extreme weather. For example, the anticipated rise in overall and peak heat levels not only have population health ramifications, but also present a serious challenge for facilities, which has contributed to the growing popularity of passive cooling technologies from basic exterior shades to green and cool roofs. All aspects of operations, from power and water consumption to food procurement are increasingly taking environmental trends into consideration.

The Canadian Coalition for Green Health Care and our partners are working with funding from the Nova Scotia Climate Change Adaptation Fund, to develop a tool to measure the resiliency of health care facilities in Canada to the effects of climate change. The project is based on a three-part definition of resiliency, which takes into account not only health systems’ ability to withstand disasters and return to normal levels of functioning (resistance and recovery), but also their ability to learn from and adapt to climate effects. The Resiliency tool should be available to facilities nationwide in 2013.

The Canadian Coalition for Green Health Care is Canada’s premier integrated green health care resource network; a national voice and catalyst for environmental change. www.greenhealthcare.ca