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Caring for People by Caring for the Planet

According to the World Health Organization, over 8.2 million people died in 2012 because of the effects of air pollution.  The United Nations environmental agency estimates that one in four deaths globally are due to environmental degradation. Adding an additional estimated 250,000 deaths annually from climate change starting in 2030, the expected spread of mosquito born illness as the world warms, increasing zoonotic disease from animal farming, and the future of human health can seem bleak.  The link between our stewardship of the environment and human health is clear. The link between the healthcare industry and the environment might seem less so.  Yet according to a 2016 JAMA article, the healthcare industry is responsible for 8% of carbon emissions in the U.S.  Since the U.S is the second largest contributor worldwide to carbon emissions, that is equivalent to the carbon emissions from the entire country of Indonesia.

Now on to the good news.  American hospitals can do something to reduce their environmental impact, and many already are.  The Healthier Hospitals Initiative has created a list of areas that hospitals can focus on to improve their environmental impact.  Many of these initiatives will save the hospital money well.  Below is a highlight of some creative ways that hospitals are going green, and a few ideas of my own.

Some of the greenest hospitals in the country are so by design.  Like the Palomar Medical Center in California that has a 1.5 acre green roof, or the Kiowa County Memorial Hospital in Kansas that was decimated by a tornado in 2007 but rebuilt with wind turbines on site to harvest the same energy that originally destroyed it.  Starting from zero is great and leads to many creative solutions, but for other hospitals without plans to rebuild, what can be done? As it turns out, a lot.

  1. Recycling and Reusing in the OR: The OR is the largest generator of waste in the hospital. I personally was surprised to see green trash bags alongside the standard red and white ones in the OR during my surgery rotation (by surprised I mean that I got yelled at by a nurse the minute I threw a glove in one and spent the rest of my rotation afraid to throw anything away).  These bags are meant to capture and recycle the packaging from sterile equipment that would otherwise go to waste.  Another important intervention is to reuse equipment (after autoclaving, of course) instead of using one-time use disposable equipment. The yield? Approximately a thousand pounds of plastic was saved weekly at one NYC hospital who piloted such a program, and with significant cost savings from decreased plastic disposal costs.
  2. Buying from sustainable suppliers: Individual consumers make a difference when they choose to “vote with their dollars” and buy green products.  Hospitals can do the same by purchasing recycled cleaning, food, and building supplies.
  3. Use a local food supply: Hospital cafeterias supply food not only for patients, but also their visitors and the ever-starved medical staff.  As large food suppliers, buying local ingredients cuts down on pollution from food transportation and supports the local economy. Bonus points include supporting organic farms and providing the freshest ingredients to patients.
  4. Compost food waste: According to the EPA, hospitals generate about 170,000 tons of food waste annually, and food waste is responsible for about 20% of methane emissions.  Thus composting programs can potentially save tons of trash from the dump every year and keep large amounts of greenhouse gases out of our air.
  5. Purchase clean energy: For those facilities too outdated to provide their own clean energy, the option to buy clean energy remains.  That is exactly was Kaiser, based out of Oakland, CA, agreed to do to when it agreed to purchase solar energy from a CA based company to replace half of its energy expenditures per year.
  6. Create a green leadership team:  By creating a 225 member green leadership team, the Beaumont Hospital in Michigan was able to implement over fifty green projects that save the hospital over $2 million annually. The message is clear: to fully invest in environmentally friendly practices, they must be prioritized by the institution.
  7. Simple ways for clinics to reduce their footprint: Turn down (or up) the thermostat depending on the season.  Invest in electronic records to reduce paper waste.  Invest in telehealth or phone calls instead of requiring patients to drive in for every appointment. On that note, offer free bus passes to employees or follow in the shoes of the Boulder CO based Mandala Integrative Medicine Clinic and offer a discount to patients who use eco-friendly means to reach the clinic.

There are plenty of other creative solutions to make the healthcare industry greener and more efficient.  It only makes sense that an industry focused on protecting human health should try to contribute as little as possible to the environmental degradation that is already costing so many human lives. It’s time to start taking care of more than our patients, and to take care of our planet as well.

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