U.S. hospitals are among the world’s biggest air polluters, accounting for an estimated 10% of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions. The amount of air pollutants produced by healthcare providers was associated with as many as 20,000 premature deaths a year, a 2018 Commonwealth Fund study found. The amount of air pollutants produced by healthcare providers was associated with as many as 20,000 premature deaths a year.
This week, Kaiser Permanente, one of the nation’s largest systems operating in eight state, became certifiably carbon neutral. Their capitated model works in their favor but there’s plenty smaller systems can do to make a difference.
1. Designing or retrofitting buildings to be more energy efficient
Ramé Hemstreet, chief energy officer and vice president for operations of Kaiser Permanente’s National Facilities Services, said a strategy of installing on-site solar power in its buildings and entering into long-term power purchasing agreements for renewable energy sources improved the health system’s energy efficiency by 8% since 2012.
2. Invest in projects that serve to offset the unavoidable greenhouse gases
Hospital system that have committed to going carbon neutral have invested in carbon offsets to counter their continued use of fossil fuels to power large energy consumers like their heating and cooling systems. Seattle Children’s offsets 10% of their emissions by working with local organizations to plant trees in local parks and other public spaces. Kaiser invests in projects like funding clay pot water filters in Guatemala that avoid burning wood or gas to boil water, as well as programs to prevent converting peatland in Indonesia into palm oil.
3. Improving medical waste disposal
Plastic medical supplies are made mostly of fossil fuels and produce more than 5 million tons of waste a year. Traditional methods of waste disposal have included incineration and dumping into landfills, both of which contribute to polluting the environment. According to the advocacy organization Health Care without Harm, some hospitals have begun to recycle such materials through sterilization processes.
4. Take a “Walmart- style approach” to supply purchasing
David Blumenthal, president of the Commonwealth Fund, suggested healthcare providers collaborate more on leveraging their collective buying power to source only from vendors that can meet their demands for low carbon footprint supplies. He said providers needed to develop a strategy for how the industry collectively can efficiently reuse important therapeutic devices and equipment without jeopardizing patient safety.
5. Push for policy changes that support sustainability
Gary Cohen, president and co-founder of Health Care Without Harm, said he expected more than a dozen health systems and hospitals might achieve carbon neutral status by 2025. But Cohen and Blumenthal agreed only so much could be accomplished if healthcare’s move toward addressing climate change remained reliant on the efforts of individual systems. Both said government action would be needed to make more substantive progress. “Part of how we accelerate the rest of healthcare to move in this direction is to align incentives, and some of that will be on the policy level,” Cohen said.