Can We Better Utilize Health Systems to Avert Environmental Catastrophe?

Guest blog by Vince O'Hara

Only 17% of my fellow Americans are “alarmed” by climate change, according to a recent survey. More than half (55%) rank climate change last among 23 competing political priorities.

As someone alarmed by climate change, this news is alarming. When I look around and see rising temperatures, increasing carbon emissions, declining forestsdying seas, booming human population, mass displacement, and surging migration, alongside an admirable yet insufficient international agreement that assumes that we will make fundamental economic shifts by mid-century or otherwise face unimaginable heat, I cannot help but be alarmed.


People naturally prioritize immediate concerns like jobs, inequality and security. We are inclined to sacrifice our environment for our personal well-being. It’s a sacrifice that I make every time I drive my car, for example.

Nevertheless, when you think of our children’s future, there is clearly cause for alarm. Humanity is on track to becoming the proverbial frog in a pot of water that is heated gradually. The frog could jump out, but he doesn’t before boiling to death. The frog was fine until he wasn’t, and then it was too late.

The widespread ambivalence to the danger humanity faces is a wake-up call for those of us who are alarmed. We need to kick it into high gear and lead the way. It is time for us to jump.

We have to change course toward sustainable living. Against humanity’s powerful cultural inertia, changing course is hard work, but it happens. Here we have no choice.

So what are we going to do?

We must urgently find ways to promote positive change. The breadth of this proposition is intended, because our environmental problems are inextricably linked to our social problems.


There are roles for everyone. Find the problems you want to solve and address them with passion, but be careful to listen, particularly to the people closest to the problems. The interrelatedness of social and environmental problems demands nuanced understanding and threatens unintended consequences. Stoke your passion, but don’t be a bull in a china shop.

In this vein, a question and some potential answers weigh heavily on my mind. My overarching question is: how do we promote positive change as quickly as possible?

Part of the answer must be to address social and environmental problems from multiple angles with full effort. This demands partnership.


How Health Systems Can Catalyze Social and Environmental Well-Being

One resource we are underutilizing is our health systems. The world has made tremendous progress toward universal access to health services and has committed to achieve that goal by 2030.

Climate change and poverty are threats to human health. So isn’t it incumbent on health systems to address those problems? I suspect that many health professionals might answer: yes, but how can we?

Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI)  in West Kalimantan, Indonesia, shows what’s possible. ASRI’s integrated health, livelihoods, and conservation programming led 32 villages to transition away from logging and slash-and-burn agriculture. This transition reduced pressure on Gunung Palung National Park, a sanctuary for important biomass and biodiversity, and improved the communities’ health, income, and education.

ASRI and its partner, Health In Harmony, are working to broaden their impact. One promising avenue is a partnership with the Yale School of Medicine to develop medical school curricula for integrated health and conservation. Another is ASRI’s expansion into a training hospital.


We need to hypercharge this progress, given the demands of our environmental crisis, as well as the untapped impact potential of our health systems. Here is one possible vision, which I look forward to refining with your input:

In 30 minute consultations, environmental and social health specialists based in clinics around the world could lead patients to self-diagnose their own social and environmental threats and connect them with the resources their households need to sustain healthy living, free of poverty.

The technology exists to achieve this vision. Fundación Paraguaya pioneered it with the Poverty Stoplight, a simple, 50-question survey for heads of household to diagnose their own uniquely experienced poverty. The survey addresses poverty in all of its dimensions, including income, wealth, health, environment, education, housing, civic participation and motivation. It is followed by mentoring to develop an action plan and access the resources they need to eliminate their poverty.

To adapt and implement the Poverty Stoplight methodology for social and environmental health delivery in diverse health systems would require tremendous partnerships and resources. We need partners like Kaiser Permanente, who is a leader in using health systems to promote environmental health and fight climate change. Could they help to mobilize the partnerships, resources and plans this vision would need? Might there be other benevolent souls passionate about building this vision, now?

Please leave any thoughts in the comments section below. We need all the input we can get.


About Vince O'Hara

Vince has been a Health In Harmony Board member since 2015 and is passionate about driving capital to the best organizations for the world. He currently works at Silicon Valley Bank and resides in San Francisco with his wife and two children.


About Darya Minovi | View all posts by Darya Minovi

Darya is the Communications and Outreach Manager at Health In Harmony, based in Portland, OR. After studying Public Health and Environmental Policy at the College of William and Mary, Darya knew she wanted to dedicate her career to protecting human and environmental health. When she's not at work, you can find Darya enjoying the great outdoors, exploring Portland's farmers markets, or watching live music.