Spotlight on Health Care Without Harm
March 22, 2022

Physicians pledge to “first, do no harm.” Hippocrates, considered as the father of medicine, outlined the role of physicians in his book “Of the Epidemics,” essentially holding physicians responsible to uphold ethical standards and put the health of the planet and patients first. Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) works to transform the healthcare sector 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. 

Founded in 1996 by Gary Cohen, a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellow “Genius Grant” and long-time environmental activist, HCWH recognizes the healthcare industry’s actual business practices often break their foundational commitment to “do no harm.” As major contributors to environmental pollution, American hospitals have largely ignored the extensive damage the use of harmful chemicals in medical devices, toxic cleaning agents, reliance on fossil fuels, and disposal of waste by incineration have on local communities and environments. In response, HCWH works with the healthcare industry to reduce their use of toxic chemicals in favor of safer products, working for the elimination of medical waste, healthier food, and more sustainable procurement practices.  This also includes work on climate change and climate justice. With a daunting mission of achieving climate neutrality in the sector by 2050 per the Paris Agreement, HCWH is an essential liaison to global health professionals, hospitals, major health systems, ministries of health and UN organizations determined to bring sustainable practices to the healthcare sector so it can be a leader in tackling one of the greatest health threats of the 21st century, climate change.

HCWH diagnoses the healthcare industry as paradoxical – their operations and business practices often contribute to harmful environmental impacts for the very patients (and larger public) they are responsible for protecting. The healthcare industry is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. The biggest source of the sector’s climate footprint is its use of fossil fuels, whether it’s through burning fossil fuels on site to produce energy, buying energy produced by coal, oil, and gas, or released from byproducts of the sector’s supply chains. Josh Karliner, the International Director of Program and Strategy at HCWH and Global Justice for Climate Center Advisory Board member, delivers a shocking statistic: “If healthcare was a country, it would be the fifth largest climate polluter on the planet…. If we are going to protect people’s health from climate change, we need to move away from fossil fuels… the sector needs to take action to reduce its own emissions.” 

Currently the healthcare system is reactive to the consequences of climate change instead of taking a proactive approach to public wellbeing. Health Care Without Harm succeeded in advocating for this global strategy at the United Nation’s most recent climate conference, COP 26, where 50 climate-vulnerable and high-polluting countries committed themselves to the COP26 Health Programme. The Programme’s ultimate goal is to create sustainable, low carbon and climate-resilient health systems. In addition, 14 of the 50 countries set a goal to reach net neutrality on or before the year 2050. Taking on this environmental approach would not only help alleviate the burden of disease, but significantly decrease the healthcare industry’s carbon footprint. Health Care Without Harm revolves around the philosophy that healthy people need a healthy planet, and we cannot achieve climate justice without organizations like HCWH advocating for the structural changes we need in global healthcare.

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