How can a place that does so much good end up being so bad for the environment? That’s the counterintuitive part to many people about hospitals and healthcare, an often-overlooked industry when it comes to impact on the environment. When you stop and think about all of the waste, the equipment delivery, and the non-stop electricity coursing through hospital buildings, though, it starts to make a lot more sense.
The industry itself is not overlooking the problem. Many hospitals have set greening goals for themselves. Here’s a closer look at some of the problems the healthcare industry faces in terms of the environment, and the steps they are taking to try to address those problems.
The biggest challenge facing the healthcare industry is that so much of the work is done through processes that are not inherently friendly to the environment. The sterile environment employs single-use products — from surgical gowns to medical equipment — that becomes waste. The shipping of those items, as well as food for cafeterias, has its own negative impact. If you trace that supply chain back to its origin, there is the element of production to consider as well. The single-use products that so quickly become waste have an effect on the environment from their creation all the way through to their disposal.
Another challenge is that the healthcare industry is different from corporations when it comes to sustainability. Businesses have to answer to consumers who might not buy a product if they don’t like the environmental practices of that business. With hospitals, though, people who are sick are going to show up, no matter how much of a negative impact that hospital has on the planet.
In many cases, though, hospitals recognize that they have work to do. Whether it is because they have felt pressure from employees who want to work in a more sustainable environment or simply because they feel it makes them better community partners, healthcare organizations are taking steps to decarbonize the industry.
Surgeries are one of the biggest offenders, with certain inhaled types of anesthesia accounting for more than half of emissions associated with surgical care. There are various ways hospitals are trying to meet carbon neutral goals they are setting, whether they are in the exploration stage or already implementing changes. These include:
- Switching to reusable surgical gowns rather than disposable ones
- Reprocessing single-use medical equipment
- Getting rid of unnecessary or rarely used sterile instruments, all of which would minimize waste.
Part of the problem with the work hospitals are doing, though, is an inability to track their progress. Some hospitals have carbon-neutral goals, but they don’t publicly track their progress. There is a tremendous amount of data that can be collected and tracked by healthcare organizations, and one fear is that an increased push to share data about greening initiatives will further burden already overworked staff. One suggestion is to start with energy consumption. From 2010-2018, U.S. healthcare emissions rose 6%, and electricity usage contributed the most to that number. Many newer healthcare facilities are designed with the environment in mind, so collecting the data might not be as much of a burden as it used to be. As in any other industry, having an organization that prioritizes sustainability efforts helps everyone feel like the data isn’t something extra – it’s part of the work they do.
One shining example
One organization that has found success from both the sustainability side as well as the reporting side is the Cleveland Clinic. The Cleveland Clinic has been pursuing green initiatives since 2007, and it publicly tracks and reports its data in a number of areas.
Its goals include:
- Scope 1 and scope 2 carbon neutrality by 2027
- Reduced energy usage per square foot
- Diverting all of its non-hazardous waste from landfills by 2027
- Reducing water usage
- Sourcing more of its food from local and/or sustainable sources
The pandemic forced many health organizations to more quickly adopt one major change that leads to more sustainable practices – telehealth. Though it can’t be used all of the time, the more frequent use of telehealth appointments, which has continued in many places even as COVID restrictions have eased, results in less of a carbon footprint than in-person visits that involve travel to and from an appointment.
There are multiple benefits to healthcare organizations that successfully integrate sustainability initiatives. One is the obvious benefit to the environment, and another is financial. Organizations that are more efficient with issues such as energy usage are helping their bottom line as well as doing a greater environmental good. The final piece, though, is why people work in healthcare in the first place: a healthier environment leads to a healthier population.
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