Tuesday, May 12, 2009

US public health institutions start pondering peak oil

Hat tip to the ever-excellent "Energy Bulletin" site for this:

Insights pertaining to the public health implications of peak oil
became the focus for the remainder of the day. . . .

* Awareness: The public health community has barely begun to address peak oil; ignorance of the problem is today's norm; the health system takes for granted long-term resource availability, and has made minimal preparation for disruptions in supply.

* Scope: Peak oil has the potential to significantly disrupt each of the three essential pillars of sustainable well-being—economic, sociopolitical, and environmental

* Disruption Potential: Peak oil will have its public health impacts in the United States on a medical care system that is natural resource-intensive, cost-intensive, and neither encourages nor supports saving resources; peak oil will intensify known public health hazards, create new hazards, and impact the entire public health preparedness system.

* Regional Vulnerability: Especially in rural regions, delivery of health care is highly dependent on private vehicle transport to get health care providers to their centralized locations, to bring critically ill patients to service facilities, and to meet the clinical care and outpatient needs of widely dispersed populations.

* Trend: Public health services in the United States have already experienced increasing demands coupled with decreasing ability to meet them; fewer people can afford private health insurance; most officials surveyed expect further funding cuts ahead.

* Sector-specificity: The public health system is highly vulnerable because of its deep dependence upon oil for transport of patients and providers, for the disposable plastic supplies which are the foundation of modern antiseptic hygiene, as well as for energy-intensive hospital operations and for pharmaceutical feedstock.

* Limited Mitigation Options: Public health planners can undertake scenario planning, and set up hospital-level committees to make decisions about scarce medical supply allocations

* Scarce-resource Allocation: Peak oil can be expected increase the duration and severity of disaster events, and of post-event responses; public health officials are accustomed to planning for the allocation of scarce resources during emergencies, but have not yet factored peak oil into such planning.

* Triage: Peak oil disaster preparedness is inadequate or non-existent; there is a significant risk of a mental health "surge" overwhelming the minimal surplus capacity of hospital emergency departments; it is crucial that allocation of finite petroleum- based healthcare be perceived as fair to preserve trust and adherence to other policies (e.g., quarantines).

The series of conclusions above paints a picture of a nation under-prepared for the impact that peak oil will have on health. As Brian Schwartz of the Bloomberg School concluded, "It is probably now too late to mitigate all the threats." Yet the conference also provided grounds for encouragement. There was broad agreement, for example, with the CDC's Jeremy Hess that "Public health workers have a responsibility to let people know that peak oil is a very real and imminent public health issue." Peak oil education, he argued, must become part of the job of insuring public health. As this happens, the field's professionals will draw on their experience in framing threats
to health care in ways that reach the public effectively. They will also call on their expertise in allocating scarce resources through procedures that people can perceive as fair and transparent, and therefore oriented towards maintaining public trust and social cohesion. As Bloomberg's Stuart Chaitkin suggested, "What is needed is a global energy revolution with three platform planks: end denial; change behavior (retrofit, travel less, eat low on the food chain, develop a preventative healthcare system); and plan for likely shortages."

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