Experts urge governments to do more to protect hospitals amid climate change

Director highlights the need for preparation compared to "pre-2016"

Experts urge governments to do more to protect hospitals amid climate change

Catastrophe & Flood

By Jonalyn Cueto

David Matear, then senior operating director for northern Alberta’s health system, found himself facing a wall of flames as he exited the downtown Fort McMurray hospital eight years ago. The wildfire that forced the largest medical evacuation in Canadian history was a stark reminder of the growing need to disaster-proof Canada’s hospitals.

“You couldn’t see the trees. You just saw fire,” Matear recalled in an interview with CTV News. The fire reached within 200 meters of the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre, leaving the town of Fort McMurray eerily abandoned as tens of thousands fled.

The hospital survived, but the smoke caused significant damage, necessitating extensive repairs before the region’s 90,000 evacuees could return. Matear, who later worked in British Columbia, stressed the urgency for bolstering Canada’s hospital defences against increasing disasters.

Ryan Ness, director of adaptation research at the Canadian Climate Institute, emphasized the need for a larger scale of preparedness. He said disasters like fires, floods, and heat waves often strike hospitals, noting the expected rise in climate-related emergencies. He urged health authorities nationwide to prioritize disaster-proofing critical infrastructure.

Protecting healthcare facilities

The Canadian Medical Association recently highlighted that many of Canada’s healthcare facilities are over 50 years old, making them particularly vulnerable. Past events have forced hospital closures across the country: Regina General Hospital shut down for eight days in 2007 due to high heat and humidity; a New Brunswick hospital flooded in 2012; and air quality warnings in 2017 temporarily closed 19 facilities.

CTV News noted a study revealed that 10% of Canada’s hospitals and major healthcare facilities are within a 100-year flood zone, with 5% in a 20-year flood zone. “Even under existing climate conditions, plenty of facilities are in high-risk flood zones,” Ness said. Solutions could include relocating electrical systems to avoid flood damage, upgrading ventilation to handle smoke, or installing air conditioning to combat extreme heat.

These measures are costly but necessary, Ness argued, asking: “Can we afford not to make sure these facilities are resilient and available and accessible and functioning in the times of greatest need?” He noted that without such adaptations, Canada risks higher costs and potential loss of lives.

A 2018 report for the BC government cited Superstorm Sandy’s impact on New York City hospitals as a cautionary example, highlighting the $800 million in damages and $3.1 billion in recovery costs. Boston’s Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, designed to withstand future climate impacts, serves as a model for future-proofing medical facilities.

Health Canada’s 2022 report, Health of Canadians in a Changing Climate, echoed the need for transformative adaptation measures. However, a 2019 survey revealed only 8% of Canadian healthcare facilities had climate change policies.

New projects like Vancouver’s St. Paul’s Hospital, designed to accommodate future sea-level rise and heatwaves, exemplify proactive planning. Ness noted that while not all hospitals require the same fortifications, identifying and addressing specific risks is crucial.

As climate-related emergencies become more common, Matear emphasized the need for preparedness, citing recent evacuations in Fort McMurray due to another wildfire. “You need to be much more prepared than provinces were pre-2016,” he said.

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