Healing hospitals | Gary Cohen | TEDxMadrid


Translator: Manu Palau
Reviewer: Denise RQ When I was growing up, I had two experiences in hospitals
that made a deep impression on me. When I was twelve, my dad went into the hospital
for tests one day. And that was the last time I saw him, because the next day,
he died because of a mistake, because of the hospital staff. Two years later, my brother
who was was seven years old, was hit by a car and spent 18 days
in a coma in the hospital. We all thought he was going to die, but he came out of the coma,
and he’s still alive today. And he’s doing remarkably well. So from an early age, I learned
that hospitals could be dangerous places, but also places
where miracles could happen. My first job out of college was writing
guidebooks to fabulous places in Europe: pub crawls in London, restaurants in Paris,
walking tours of Amsterdam. After two years of eating and drinking
my way around the world, a friend asked me whether I’d write
a different kind of guidebook. This one to polluted places. I said nobody wants to visit those places. And he said the book would be a guide to people who are living
in contaminated communities to help them address
the toxic threats they faced. The Union Carbide chemical disaster
had happened in Bhopal, India, and people were asking whether a similar disaster
could happen in their communities. Like many people, I was horrified
and moved by the photos from Bhopal of thousands of people dead in the street
or blinded by the toxic gases. So I said I would work on the project. Researching the book,
I wanted to talk to people who were living
in these polluted places and to find out what they were doing
to address their problems. So I sat around kitchen tables
with mothers and fathers who didn’t understand why their daughter
had some rare form of cancer, why their son woke up late at night
choking for breath, why the water tasted so bad. They had nothing: they had no money,
they had no technical skills, they had no political power. But they were demanding answers and challenging the most
powerful companies in their communities because they were fighting
for their families lives. I was so impressed with their bravery and with their fierce defense
of their children. And I could easily imagine if it was my daughter who were sick and poisoned by the factory
down the street. So I delved deeply into this issue. And I joined a movement
of people around the world that are fighting to stop the toxics
trespass in their communities. And then in 1996, I heard something
so absurd and disturbing I didn’t believe it. The US government reported that hospitals were the largest source of dioxin
contamination in the United States. Dioxin is produced
by burning chlorinated plastics, like the kind in IV bags and tubing. They go out into the environment. They build up in the food chain,
they build up in us. And they’re linked to cancer,
and birth defects, and brain damage. The health care sector devoted to healing was itself a large source
of contamination. It stopped me cold. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. Because hospitals were also an enormous
source of mercury contamination. There’s enough mercury in one thermometer
to contaminate a 20-acre lake. In 1996, there were millions
of thermometers that were breaking in American hospitals and winding up
in our air, in our water, and ultimately, into the fish we ate. Around the world, there were
tens of millions of thermometers that were breaking
and winding up in the environment. The same year, the US government reported that there was enough mercury
in kids being born, that a million kids might have
learning problems later in life. So the fact that hospitals
were poisoning people in service of healing them, was crazy. How are we going to stop the epidemic
of cancer and other chronic diseases that we all face if the healthcare sector
itself is contributing to it? So I decided to start an organization
called Health Care Without Harm to heal the healthcare sector’s pollution and to put health back into the center of healing and the healthcare sector. What a concept! But I had two problems in starting
this organization. One I told you about:
I was frightened of hospitals. I thought they were dangerous places. And the other problem was I hardly knew anybody who worked
in the healthcare sector. But besides these two small details, I was totally ready to take on an industry was 18% of the US economy,
and 10% globally. And then, I got lucky. I met three women
who actually worked in healthcare, and they have been allies
with me for the last 19 years. The first one worked
for Kaiser Permanente, which happened to be the largest non-profit hospital system
in the United States. The other two were Catholic nuns
who worked for Dignity Healthcare, which was one the largest
Catholic hospital systems. So right away, we had size
and God on our side. It was a miracle. So we worked with their hospitals to show
them how they could reduce their waste, how they could recycle
the noninfectious parts, how they could save money
in the process, but most importantly, how they could stop burning
all this waste. And they showed
other hospitals how to do it, and by 2006, over 4,000 medical waste incinerators
were shut around the United States, and American hospitals were no longer
a large source of dioxin contamination. At the same time, we worked
with Kaiser Permanente to get them to phase out
their use of mercury thermometers. The problem with the mercury thermometers
was they were cheap and the alternatives cost
a lot more money. But here, size really does matter. Kaiser’s big: they have
11 million members. They have enormous purchasing power. So when they said that they would buy
millions of non mercury thermometers, the price for the alternatives went down, and within a few years, they had phased out mercury thermometers. And then we leveraged that victory
with 5,000 other hospitals, and then 14 pharmacy chains,
and then 28 European countries, and then Argentina,
and then the Philippines. And then, by 2013,
there was a global treaty signed that phases out all mercury
measuring devices by the year 2020. These are early and important victories
on the path to sustainable healthcare. But the healthcare sector has
a long, long way to go before they truly embody
the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm. Here are some facts. Hospitals use twice as much energy
as commercial buildings, and the vast majority of this energy
is dependent on fossil fuels. They’re just as addicted to fossil fuels
as the rest of the economy. And that addiction
is literally killing us. Each year, more than seven million people
die from indoor and outdoor air pollution related to the burning of fossil fuels. That is twice as many people that die from
AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined. So climate change is bringing an entirely
new reality to the healthcare sector and a mandate to have
a much broader healing mission. Hospitals are still enormous consumers
of toxic chemicals. Some of those chemicals
lead directly into vulnerable patients when they’re getting their fluids from IV bags and tubing
made of PVC plastics. Some of the disinfectants
are asthma triggers, which could help explain why nurses have some of the highest asthma rates
of any profession. And then there are
the buildings themselves, built with toxic building materials, furniture drenched
in toxic flame retardants, toxic cleaners on the floor,
depressing lighting. They look bad,
they smell bad, they feel bad. It’s as if the building themselves
were on life support. And so we challenged
healthcare architects: Can you build cancer centers
without carcinogens? Can you build children’s hospitals without chemicals
linked to birth defects and asthma? And healthcare architects came forward
and worked with us to design a framework that puts health at the center
of building design. And within a few years, hundreds of
hospitals were coming up and being built that used energy efficient technologies,
that had natural light, that used safer building materials. And then, in Europe, and Latin America,
and Southeast Asia, and around the world, hundreds of hospitals were being built that actually promoted healing
as opposed to making us feel sicker. But healthcare could do
a lot better, a lot better. They need to be anchors
for community resilience, and wellness, and sustainability
rather than cathedrals of chronic disease. Hospitals can be anchors. They can be places of refuge
in the coming storms of climate change. They can be the last buildings
standing in extreme weather events so they take care of the people
who are sick and wounded by those extreme weather events. They have enormous purchasing power; they are economic engines in our communities
and in the economy as a whole. So we’re working with them
to transform what they buy, and to use the power of healthcare to begin to bend the economy
toward health and justice. Here are a few examples
that are promising. Kaiser Permanente now has
50 farmers markets in their healthcare facilities
in the communities they serve. And they and hundreds of hospitals
are using their purchasing power to support sustainable farmers
in their communities, to bring healthy food
to their patients and employees. Kiowa Hospital in Kansas was completely
wiped out by a tornado several years ago; but was rebuilt completely
run on on wind power, as is the whole town
of Greensburg, Kansas. The Swedish government requires
all the pharmaceutical companies to disclose their ecological impacts
for their drugs so that doctors can write prescriptions
for drugs that are effective but also don’t pollute the environment. And we’re working with the United Nations
to design environmental standards that can transform
all of their healthcare purchasing. These are hopeful signs
we can move healthcare upstream to deal with the the social
and environmental conditions that are making people sick
in the first place. But there’s still a lot of healing work
that needs to be done. Hospitals and clinics around the world
can be powered by renewable energy and can show the rest of us how to make this critical transformation
to a low carbon future. Hospitals can lead the way in defending the rights of our kids
to be born toxic free, to defending our rights
to clean air, to clean water, to healthy food, to safe products
that don’t poison our kids. Healthcare can be critical in helping us
to heal our relationship with nature. They can help us understand that you can’t have healthy people
on a sick planet. Because healthcare is
the one sector of the economy that has healing as its mission. We can transform hospitals from being dangerous places
to places where miracles can happen. After all, isn’t that
what healthcare is for? Thank you. (Applause)

3 thoughts on “Healing hospitals | Gary Cohen | TEDxMadrid

  1. The idea that not only are our doctors often corrupted by greed…but that the facilities and policies themselves were great contributors to pollution… :'(

    its gutwrenching… absolutely heartbreaking…

    Thank you, TxT, and Thank you Mr. Cohen

  2. Alright let's get this healing department revolutionized/overhauled. Happy healthy pareilta are the number one priority. New techniques, funding, inventing and research. More intercontinental education please.

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