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UMN School of Public Health recognized for sustainability in healthcare management curriculum

The Climate Change and Health Organizations course trains students to address environmental issues in healthcare.
Image by Mary Ellen Ritter

The University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health received an award on March 27 for its work teaching students about the connection between healthcare and climate change.

The 2022 Award for Sustainability in Healthcare Management Education and Practice recognizes academic programs that teach students how to incorporate sustainable practices and ways of thinking into their work as healthcare providers. These teachings include how to properly dispose of technological waste and how to be prepared for natural disasters that could harm human life.

The award also recognizes the curriculum for emphasizing how inequities may make it harder for underserved populations to receive healthcare and how to incorporate equity in hiring practices, according to Janette Dill, associate professor in health policy and management.

“This award recognizes how the University of Minnesota [Master of Healthcare Administration] program provides a student learning experience focused on sustainability, accessibility and community involvement,” President and CEO of the Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education (CAHME) Dr. Anthony Stanowski said. “Students learn how healthcare services need to address disparities by ensuring equitable access to resources.”

The University’s curriculum in this program focuses on drawing connections between climate change and human health, two topics people may think are unrelated or wouldn’t be taught together, according to Ryan Armbruster, Senior Fellow in Health Policy and Management.

Armbruster said he thinks demand will increase for healthcare professionals with knowledge on sustainability and environmental issues due to the ongoing climate crisis.

In the program, students learn how the effects of climate change, like extreme heat, lengthen allergy seasons and natural disasters, impact human health and how to respond to these events as healthcare providers, Armbruster said.

Students also consider how the pollution emitted from cars and power plants can contribute to premature deaths, hospital visits and acute respiratory symptoms, according to MHA student Becca Ruff.

“Creating environmentally sustainable policies and practices in healthcare organizations can make a big difference in improving the health of our environments and communities, now and in the future,” Ruff said.

The curriculum also discusses how healthcare organizations contribute to carbon emissions, Armbruster said. The United States healthcare system contributes 10% of the nation’s carbon emissions, according to the Journal of American Medical Association.

Developing sustainability goals can be difficult for healthcare organizations with different focuses and large numbers of employees. The increased stress and burnout of healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic has also made it difficult to develop these goals, Ruff said.

Ruff worked with an organization to implement a new, more effective system for disposing of electronic equipment used in healthcare settings, like computers, work phones, tablets and printers.

Before this change, some departments in Ruff’s organization were not properly utilizing the recycling program for technology waste, she said.

When properly disposed of, some technology can be reused or recycled for future use. Ruff said she added additional disposal stations to the healthcare center so technological waste could be disposed of in an environmentally responsible way.

“After taking the class, I feel better prepared to engage in conversations about the importance of environmental sustainability and now have better tools to assess and propose recommendations for where a healthcare organization may have opportunities to improve it,” Ruff said.

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