Designing Hospitals to Survive Climate Change

Updated: Mar 1, 2021

Major climate change and weather-related events like hurricanes and wildfires are becoming stronger and more often than ever before in human history. Severe weather events create surges of demand for hospitals while simultaneously threatening the continuity of care. Hospitals are structurally and financially affected by extreme weather events, but are also major contributors to carbon emissions. And it doesn’t matter where climate events occur – a single event can trigger power lapses and supply chains around the globe. When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, the US faced shortages of critical medical supplies and medication. Puerto Rico manufactures IV bags and the plants were severely damaged in the storm. For months, nurses in the US needed to slowly inject medication into patients by hand, instead of letting medication drip from an IV bag.

Healthcare institutions need solutions that address the direct and indirect effects of damaging wind, torrential rain, flooding, unprecedented temperatures, and loss of power while ensuring all critical facilities stay operational and accessible. They must balance the needs of their patients with the realities of changing treatments, staffing, technological developments, infrastructure maintenance, and cost.

Structural Changes

When Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, NYU Langone Medical Center, found in Manhattan, was ready for up to 12 feet of water. But once the flooding exceeded that 12 feet, backup

generators stopped working, the power grid went down, and hospital staff members were rushing to evacuate more than 200 patients in the dark.

Since that crisis, hospitals everywhere have acknowledged that we must be more prepared than ever before. Climate experts performed a study to pinpoint weather

hazards in Boston, so that architects could create a facility that is ready for the worst-case scenario. This enabled the redesign of the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, which is built on the Boston waterfront in Charleston. The first floor of the hospital is 30 inches above the 500-year flood mark, and the design minimizes damage if water were ever to rise that high. The backup generator at this hospital is made to power the hospital even if the power grid goes down, and it is in an upper level of the hospital in case of an emergency. Just a few simple changes in design have made this hospital ready for a major storm.

Energy Reduction

At the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, Jon Utech, Senior director of the Office for a Healthy Environment, decided to mitigate two huge sources of energy consumption – lightbulbs and computers. He changed all the lightbulbs in the building from fluorescent lights to lower-energy LEDs, which improved light quality for the health care staff, and continues to save $2.5 million a year in energy costs. A bonus is that staff spends less time changing light bulbs because the new LEDs burn out much less often. Utech knew that the hospital was using a lot of energy through the 50,000 medical grade computers the staff uses, so he decided to install software that would automatically put them on sleep mode when they weren’t being used, while keeping essential services on standby. This resulted in a savings of $400,000 per year. Energy reduction and lower financial costs go hand in hand, so making these changes is positive for both the climate and monetary needs of hospitals.

Across the country in California, architects designed San Diego Medical Center with a smaller carbon footprint in mind. Builders installed 1,500 solar panels on the roof, which supplement the hospital’s generator. All the lights in the building are energy-saving LEDs, including lights in patient rooms. The outdoor landscaping at the hospital features native plants that are watered with reclaimed water. Over the years, the steps this hospital has taken to reduce its carbon footprint have earned it a platinum certification by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), the most widely used green building rating system.

Preparing for What’s Next

The human and health impacts of climate change are becoming increasingly hard to ignore. Extreme weather events are disrupting more and more lives and businesses while also worsening chronic health conditions like asthma, expanding the range of infectious diseases, and worsening mental illness. Since our world is in a constant state of change, we must be prepared to adapt quickly. While we cannot become carbon neutral or be ready for every climate threat overnight, we can work together to ensure our healthcare institutions are more resilient for the future. By making some changes to our healthcare system, we will be better equipped to be a beacon of hope to our cities while weathering the storm.

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