By Kathy Gerwig
Health care organizations are in the business of supporting human health. Yet the irony is that health care organizations, and the hospitals they operate, are no small players in contributing to climate change. Hospitals account for 8 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. They spend $5.3 billion on energy every year, and use twice as much energy per square foot as traditional office space. They generate more than 2 million tons of waste per year. And they are among the top 10 water users in their communities, with some facilities using up to 700,000 gallons of water per hospital bed per year.
It’s a considerable environmental footprint. And as the consequences of climate change are becoming all the more real, posing the “biggest global health threat in the 21st century,” it is only natural that health care organizations should take a leading role in addressing this challenge.
And they are.
A growing number of health care business and clinical leaders are turning away from ideological disputes and tired political battles over climate change and are simply stepping up to the challenge. They are embracing environmental stewardship as part of their commitment to improving health. They are mounting a response to the health impacts of climate change that are predicted and are already being felt. And they are looking hard at the environmental impact of their hospitals and operations in order to address their role in driving climate change and do something about it.
Last month’s United Nations Climate Summit illustrates the complexity of getting world leaders to agree on a plan of action to tackle the climate crisis. By contrast, some of the world’s leading health care organizations see their mission of healing people and healing the planet as one and the same. They carry out their health care mission with the understanding that environmental health, community health and individual health often interact in such complex ways as to be often indistinguishable. If we want to achieve health, we must tackle all the determinants of health, and we must do it in partnership with one another.
In my book “Greening Health Care, How Hospitals Can Heal the Planet”, I examine the intersection of health care and environmental health, exploring the challenges that health care has faced in owning up to its impact on the environment. I look at the many ways that health care is helping to shift the dialogue around environmental sustainability by stepping up to the challenge of climate change in ways that, frankly, many world political leaders could learn from.
What are health care leaders doing?
Health systems including Dignity Health are committing to reduce their systemwide energy consumption through energy efficient upgrades and installation of renewable energy sources like photovoltaic, solar hot water, cogeneration and fuel cell technology across 35 percent of their enterprise.
Cleveland Clinic achieved impressive energy efficiency results simply by substituting more than 60,000 LED bulbs for nearly all the incandescent lights across their campuses and dimming nighttime lighting in hospital corridors. The result was a huge reduction in energy, with a savings of $4 million in energy costs per year.
Seattle Children’s Hospital implemented a comprehensive transportation management plan focusing on the health and environmental benefits of cycling, walking, using public transit and other innovations. Since its inception, the hospital has helped to take 630,000 car trips off the roads, reducing vehicle miles traveled by 6.5 million miles and saving 235,000 gallons of gasoline.
And at Kaiser Permanente, we’re building healthier hospitals through a commitment to LEED Gold-certified construction in all major projects. It’s now our standard practice to incorporate such innovations as energy-efficient heating and ventilation systems, photoelectric and motion sensors to turn off or dim lights when not in use, replace halogen and incandescent bulbs with LED bulbs, and build-in systems to recycle waste anesthetic gases that have a high global warming potential. Kaiser Permanente is the largest user of solar power among U.S. health care providers and we are ramping up additional purchases of onsite and offsite renewable power.
In addition to addressing climate change, these actions have immediate health benefits today. Reducing particulate matter, mercury, carbon and other pollutants reduces respiratory illness, heart attacks and early deaths.
The evidence is clear that we in health care not only have an opportunity to take action, we have an obligation by virtue of our social and medical mission. The past 15 years represent a green revolution underway in the health care industry. It is a journey of a thousand steps, but one that shows great promise as an entire industry has begun to unite in response to the health impacts of climate change.
Kathy Gerwig is vice president of Employee Safety, Health and Wellness and environmental stewardship officer at Kaiser Permanente. She is responsible for developing, organizing and managing the organization’s national Environmental Stewardship initiative, and under her leadership Kaiser Permanente has become widely recognized as an environmental leader in the health care sector.