Healthcare facilities can be seen as the first and last defense against the impacts of climate change. Not only do they provide care to people suffering the adverse effects of a warming planet, whether that’s an extreme weather event or conditions caused by air pollution, the health sector itself is also responsible for considerable amounts of greenhouse gases. In fact, if healthcare were a country, it would be the fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet, according to Healthcare Without Harm.
While patient care will always be the first priority for healthcare facilities, whether it’s a small doctor’s surgery or a large hospital, increasing climate resilience in these establishments not only helps the planet, but patient health too.
So what can the healthcare industry do to make itself more environmentally-friendly? We’ve highlighted five areas that can be addressed — it doesn’t take much to start making a big difference.
1. Manage waste effectively
Healthcare establishments, particularly hospitals, are a big problem when it comes to waste. It’s estimated that the U.S. healthcare industry produces over 5.9 million tons of waste every year. COVID-19, and the industrial amounts of PPE nationwide, has made medical waste more visible than ever, but the environmental footprint of the industry is much larger.
According to the World Health Organization, 15% of waste generated by healthcare facilities is hazardous and in need of specific disposal. In addition, an estimated 16 billion injections are administered worldwide, and not all needles and syringes are properly disposed of. However, managing these aspects of hospital waste is only one part of the equation. The remaining 85% of a hospital’s general waste can either be reduced, reused, or recycled, which means there is a lot of room to make an impact.
Cleveland Clinic is one medical center that has succeeded in reducing their waste by increasing recycling. Toby Cosgrove, executive advisor of the Cleveland Clinic, wrote that they diverted waste from landfills by as much as 30% at some of their hospitals. “We’re not only shrinking our carbon footprint, we’re saving money and adding spirit-charging green spaces,” he said.
2. Build sustainable infrastructure
Facilities like hospitals need to be operational 24/7, which means their water and electricity usage is naturally going to be far higher than, for example, an office building. However, facilities can become more sustainable with proper planning, from using renewable energy and sustainable building materials.
More facilities each year are embracing sustainable design, with Dell Children’s the first hospital in the world to achieve LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum certification. Built in 2004, Dell was created with the vision of being a “green” hospital, believing that only a healthy hospital can truly promote children’s health. The facility's many green features include solar panels that generate electricity for use in the cafeteria and lobby and on-site wastewater treatment with 100% of the treated water used for toilet flushing and landscaping irrigation.
3. Switch to green energy
More than half of healthcare’s carbon footprint comes from energy use, both from the facilities themselves and from their supply chains, according to Healthcare Without Harm. Facilities can become greener by decarbonizing operations and supply chains, and powering their facilities with renewable energy.
One success story is Roche, ranked the most sustainable healthcare company in the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices (DJSI), whose energy from sustainable sources now makes up approximately 63% of their total electricity consumption. At their site in Suzhou, China, the solar panel system produces enough electricity from sunlight to cover 80% of the energy needs of the administration building – or enough to power almost 500 private homes for an entire year.
4. Embrace online technology
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the use of online technology as healthcare facilities adapted to the new normal of lockdowns and social distancing, with online consultations with patients and video conferencing with staff. The ability to evaluate, diagnose, prescribe, and treat patients remotely is set to continue and has also given rise to a wave of direct-to-consumer (DTC) healthcare startups—driven by the health-conscious and digital-savvy Gen Z, who want healthcare delivered to their smartphones.
DTC brands are quickly popping up to meet people where they’re at and improve the health care experience. Companies like Roman, Hims/Hers, Hubble, and Smile Direct Club are all examples of DTC brands gaining market share in the healthcare space. While going directly to the consumer might (currently) be far-fetched for most major health care providers, they can adapt parts of their business to online solutions and improve their carbon footprint in the process.
5. Raise awareness amongst staff and visitors
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, sustainability should be an integral part of company culture. Steps healthcare businesses can take include setting up a dedicated leadership team that can look at gathering data about their organization’s carbon footprint and then consequently promoting reduce, reuse, and recycle campaigns to educate staff and visitors.
For healthcare facilities, this can include things like minimizing paper communication, switching out items and equipment—such as products made with polystyrene and single-use plastic—with sustainable alternatives. It also means educating patients on greener practices, such as returning unused medicines to pharmacies to be recycled, rather than thrown away, and taking greener transport to their appointments.