New Report Measures Human, Financial Toll of Extreme Heat

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July 20, 2023 – As heat waves become more common, hospitals and emergency rooms in the U.S. will see thousands more cases of people who pass out from heatstroke or have potentially deadly heart problems, a new report warns.

Researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University made their conclusions after analyzing state-level data from Virginia for emergency department visits, hospital admissions, insurance claims, and daily reports from 15 weather stations. They found that from 2016 to 2020, an average of 80 heat event days occurred each summer. Another 20 to 30 days of extreme heat per summer are expected by mid-century, the authors noted.

When the researchers applied their state-level findings on a national basis, they estimated that heat events currently cause an additional 235,000 emergency department visits and 56,000 hospital admissions for heat-related illnesses or complications from other problems worsened by extreme heat. The total cost of that heat-related health care is approximately $1 billion.

The U.S. spends more than $4 trillion annually on health care, according to a government estimate, of which about $1.3 trillion is on hospital care.

Heat-related illnesses and complications included in the report, titled “The Health Care Costs of Extreme Heat,” were:

  • Heat cramps, which involve muscle pain or spasms and heavy sweating during exercise
  • Heat exhaustion, which occurs when the body struggles to keep a normal temperature and can involve a rapid pulse, cold and clammy skin, nausea, dizziness, or a headache
  • Heatstroke, which occurs when core body temperature rises to about 103 F and the pulse increases while sweat decreases, resulting sometimes in confusion or  passing out

“The growing threat of extreme heat requires all levels of government and the private sector to confront the fundamental crisis of climate change by taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to pursue policies that mitigate the effects of extreme heat and the emergencies it creates,” the report authors concluded. “These efforts are necessary across the United States, but especially in low-income neighborhoods, communities of color, and other settings where vulnerability to severe weather and climate change is greatest.”