May 21, 2018

Environmental health hero award: Kathy Gerwig greens health care

As a child growing up in West Virginia, Kathy Gerwig got her first glimpse of the importance of protecting the environment for human health. Since then, she has devoted her career to creating a national environmental movement within health care. Gerwig, Kaiser Permanente’s vice president for employee safety, health and wellness and its environmental stewardship officer, was recently recognized as winner of the 2018 Environmental Health Hero Award, by the non-profit Health Care Without Harm.

The author of “Greening Health Care: How Health Care Can Heal the Planet,” Gerwig has long led Kaiser Permanente’s sustainability efforts. She has elevated Kaiser Permanente as a national leader in environmental responsibility, and demonstrated how organizations in the health care sector and beyond can make a measurable impact on combating climate change.

We recently spoke with Gerwig about how she got her start, her work to promote environmental sustainability within health care, and Kaiser Permanente’s plans to participate in the Global Climate Action Summit, set to take place in San Francisco, Sept. 12-14.

What is your first memory related to the importance of protecting the environment?

I grew up in West Virginia, where coal mining caused black lung disease and devastated ecosystems. My family moved to Santa Barbara after a major oil spill, which has been surpassed only by the Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez spills. My father was a surgeon, so connections between health, health care and the environment were ongoing discussions in our house. By the time I left for college, I knew that I wanted a career that embraced environmentalism.

Why is it sometimes a stretch for people to make the connection between climate change and human health?

During the earlier years of climate action, almost all the publicity featured polar bears on small ice floes, shrinking glaciers and dying coral reefs. Very little was said about the human health impact. Yet it is the human toll of climate change that is the biggest threat. And climate change is harming health now through extreme heat, air pollution, more tick and mosquito related diseases, contaminated food and water, and deadly storms and wildfires exacerbated by climate change.

This is one reason the health care sector is uniquely positioned to be a powerful catalyst for climate action. As a sponsor of the Global Climate Action Summit in September, Kaiser Permanente will have a role in engaging people and motivating action.

What are you most proud of when you think about the past 20 years?

This work is marked by such generous collaboration. People have stepped up not because of their job descriptions, but because they want to contribute. We have fantastic professionals across Kaiser Permanente and among our many partnering organizations, including Health Care Without Harm, who go out of their way to bring environmental innovations into their day jobs.

Our ambitious goals to become carbon neutral as an organization are particularly exciting. We have some of the country’s leading experts right here, and they stay because their ideas are put into practice. We learned early on how to make environmental improvements that are completely aligned with our imperatives of quality care, affordability and community health. We aim to showcase these successes so they can be shared throughout the health care sector.

Name a few things you do every day to protect the environment.

I power my electric car with the solar panels on our home. I am a mindful shopper, going for quality and durability, and avoiding products with harmful chemicals. The most important thing I do is to care for my physical and mental wellness. Being healthy is good for the planet. I exercise daily and use techniques such as One Moment Meditation. Also, my food choices are mostly organic and I don’t eat meat, although I can’t say the same about our cat.

What are you most hopeful about looking ahead?

I am fiercely hopeful because I’ve seen the significance of what Kaiser Permanente and our partners have already accomplished. As advocates of climate-smart health care, we have significant influence not only through our direct operations, but globally through our investments and supply chain. Kaiser Permanente came into being as a health care innovator, undaunted by powerful forces that resisted change. That spirit — turned into action — is what gives me hope.