We caught up with Dr. Aparna Bole on a classic Cleveland morning, gray skies shifting seamlessly into sunny, cerulean blue and back again. From our vantage point on the rooftop of Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital at UH's main campus in University Circle, the city beamed with energy. Walls of flowers bordered our conversation as Bole described how she got to her current positions and what she's looking forward to continuing to accomplish.
"In health care, we're becoming more and more aware of how much we need to widen our lens if we're serious about improving the health of the populations we serve," she says. She started the health system's sustainability office in 2010, blending the themes of waste reduction, energy management, sustainable purchasing, healthful food, green buildings and an overall sense of wellness into a massive institution.
This is a major motif in Bole's work: identifying how the environmental context of a patient — the stuff in between medical procedures and check-ups — affects his or her health. With a rapidly changing healthcare business ecosystem and a rapidly changing climate, this sort of paradigm shift is paramount for places like UH. Bole is on the vanguard.
Besides her two primary titles at UH, Bole remains a practicing pediatrician. And that's where her work has seemingly been most visible, by taking a close look at how climate change and its air quality effects end up impacting our community's most vulnerable population: children. This manifests as advocacy through health care operations, setting an example for local legislators and air quality control leaders. The key, Bole has noticed, is that government policy needs to be treated as a health issue. What is the home environment for Cleveland's children like? What decisions have been made to improve the places where young Clevelanders grow up?
"Ten to 20 percent of a population's well-being is determined by access to excellent health care, and that's great and we want to continue to provide that," she says. "But if we really want to improve our community's overall well-being, we need to focus on social, economic, environmental, physical issues in the community."
Cleveland is a great place to do just that. After growing up in Portland, Oregon, where environmental leanings have been a social constant for a long time, Bole landed in Cleveland to find a city that's situated perfectly to do even more to improve its footprint on this world. With a public transit system traversing roadways conducive to cycling and walking, Cleveland's old bones provide its current residents a platform to develop new, more sustainable community assets. The entrepreneur set has started companies that are built on green and eco-friendly models, which in turn benefit all neighbors. In the heart of it all, Bole finds optimism and enjoyment.
"How lucky are we?" Bole says. "We have plenty of fresh water, we have these incredible bones in our city — this architectural richness and incredible cultural diversity. If you think about the challenge and opportunity of the American city, Cleveland embodies that for me in a way that's really exciting and positive." — Eric Sandy