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‘We can’t wait any longer’: Idaho health care group wants action on climate change

Dr. Ethan Sims (second from left) and a few members of Idaho Clinicians for Climate and Health listen to Stephanie Wicks, sustainability manager at St. Luke’s, at a meeting Sept. 26, 2022, at Lost Grove Brewing in Boise. (Audrey Dutton, Idaho Capital Sun)
Dr. Ethan Sims (second from left) and a few members of Idaho Clinicians for Climate and Health listen to Stephanie Wicks, sustainability manager at St. Luke’s, at a meeting Sept. 26, 2022, at Lost Grove Brewing in Boise. (Audrey Dutton, Idaho Capital Sun)

Idaho Clinicians for Climate and Health founder says climate change ‘isn’t a political issue, it’s a health care issue’

Ethan Sims and his two daughters went to Washington, D.C., last week. The girls, ages 13 and 14, spent the afternoon telling aides for Idaho’s all-Republican congressional delegation how climate change affects their lives.

One example: their coaches are forced to cancel practices because of unsafe air quality.

Sims is an emergency room physician for St. Luke’s in the Treasure Valley. He sees the effects of climate change on his patients — especially as Idaho deals with wildfire smoke in the air and blistering heat waves. So, alongside his daughters, he made a case for Idaho’s delegation that “climate change is not a political issue, it’s a health care issue,” urging them to participate in climate-health initiatives.

Back home, Sims leads a group called Idaho Clinicians for Climate and Health. It’s a loosely organized crew of people who work in hospitals, clinics and other medical settings.

Their goals are simple: to help health care, as an industry, reduce its carbon footprint; and to put “our environment” on level with “our diet” when it comes to talking about health.

A handful of members showed up at Lost Grove Brewing in Boise for the September meeting of Idaho Clinicians for Climate and Health.

At the meeting were an emergency room nurse, an infection prevention specialist, a clinic coordinator and a health system sustainability manager.

Over beers and kombucha, they brainstormed how to get more people and groups in Idaho involved in efforts such as reducing waste — something hospitals and clinics produce in truckloads — and reducing vehicle use by patients and employees.

There are similar groups in about half of U.S. states, including most of Idaho’s neighbors. They belong to The Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health.

“Health care generates about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. as an industry. (It is) the fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, if it was a nation — globally — so we know there’s a lot of room to improve,” Sims said. “We use a ton of energy, and we create the most waste in the Treasure Valley.”

One of the people at the September meeting was Stephanie Wicks, the sustainability manager for St. Luke’s Health System.

She talked about a “green team” launched at St. Luke’s that offers education.

For example, a recent waste audit showed that one day of surgeries in a hospital operating room creates the equivalent of 180 large trash bags full of waste, Sims said.

“Well, now you know what the waste is” at a baseline for a hospital, Wicks said. The next step is to identify ways to reduce that waste. “We can reprocess this equipment, we can buy differently … (or) buy some things that can be reprocessed,” she said.

There’s also damage done outside the walls of Idaho’s hospitals — as patients drive to and from appointments, use gloves and plastic packaging release methane at the county landfill, or employees drive to work instead of biking because their clinic has no shower or changing room.

“There are hospitals in Wisconsin that take all their trash and basically siphon off all the methane on-site and use that to heat their buildings there,” Sims said.

The group’s goal right now is to show people that a changing climate can damage their health.

“I don’t think there’s anyone out there in the world who’s like … ‘I’d rather have a cough for the rest of my life. That’s OK. Like, these 110 degree days? It’s cool, let’s just keep doing that,’” Sims said. “So I think there’s nobody who doesn’t agree that they don’t want the negative effects of climate change.”

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state. As longtime Idahoans ourselves, we understand the challenges and opportunities facing Idaho. We provide in-depth reporting on legislative and state policy, health care, tax policy, the environment, Idaho’s explosive population growth and more. Our mission is relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Boise and beyond are made and how they affect everyday Idahoans. We aim to tell untold stories and provide data, context and analysis on the issues that matter most throughout the state. The Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. We retain full editorial independence.