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10 ways hospitals can heal the planet

A healthy and sustainable environment is a necessary foundation for human health. On that most people agree. But there is an interesting paradox in health care: As hospitals deliver life-saving care to people, their environmental footprint — pollution, energy use, waste production, etc. — can be harmful to our health.

A growing segment of health care business and clinical leaders are addressing this glaring contradiction, and the medical community is taking an increasing vocal role in raising public awareness on the perils climate change poses to human health.

Here are 10 ways hospitals can heal the planet:

Advance a healthier economy. Hospitals are more than an important part of the community, their impact reaches across the globe. Health care generates about 17 percent of all U.S. economic output, making it large enough to create and lead a national, and even global, transformation that considers environmental sustainability in every dimension of economic activity. Eliminating mercury, minimizing incineration, creating demand for products that don’t contain harmful chemicals are successes led by U.S. hospitals that have had global impact.

Buy solar and wind energy. With around the clock operations and highly technical environments, hospitals are, let’s face it, energy hogs. Replacing fossil fuel with renewable energy sources like wind and solar is the single most impactful thing hospitals can do to mitigate against the effects of climate change on health.

Make every watt count. Reducing energy demand is as much a part of any good energy strategy as buying renewables. From low-cost to more substantial upfront investments, energy-reduction initiatives can have measurable impact on improving air quality and patient health, and reducing operating expenses.

91957046 by mattwalker69 CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr
91957046 by mattwalker69 CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

Build green. Studies increasingly show the benefits of green design on the environment, cost and staff retention. At Kaiser Permanente we have made it a policy to pursue a minimum of LEED gold certification for new construction of hospitals and other major construction projects. Our own experience has shown that when green design and construction principles are adopted early in the planning process, there is little to no added cost, and return on investment is almost immediate.

Support sustainable food systems. With their substantial purchasing power and focus on health, hospitals and health systems are in an ideal position to create change within the wider food system. By supporting local farms and producers and promoting healthy diets with reduced meat consumption, hospitals and health experts  can encourage healthy food habits in the community and make over a tired industrial food system that until recently served up Jell-O and canned peaches as hospital food.

Reduce hospital waste. Hospitals in the U.S. generate some 7,000 tons of waste per day, or more than 2.3 million tons a year. By making smarter purchasing decisions upstream and recycling, reusing, and composting waste, hospitals can save money while diverting loads of waste from landfills and incinerators.

Detox. In the absence of effective public policies on chemicals of concern, the burden of absorbing the mounting knowledge of chemical toxicity in our environment and to respond to it can fall to doctors, nurses and others who work in health care. By adopting an institutional commitment to safer chemicals, tapping into resources to help understand more about potentially harmful chemicals and where they lurk, and flexing that special purchasing muscle, hospitals can help bring safer, better products to market. Vinyl-free latex-safe gloves, PVC-free carpets and flooring, DEHP-free IV tubes, and flame-retardant-free furniture are just a few examples of health care products that didn’t exist or were not widely available until health care purchasers worked with suppliers to develop them.

 Studies increasingly show the benefits of green design on the environment, cost and staff retention

Collaborate. Hospitals are anchor members of their communities and communities play a major role in addressing many of our most pressing environmental concerns. By partnering with environmental groups, local governments, NGOs and other community organizations, we can build communities with healthy ecosystems that support human health, plants, and animals.

Speak up about health and the environment. With a focus on prevention and proven clinical best-practices, doctors and public health experts are moving the dial on smoking, obesity, and some of our toughest lifestyle-related diseases. By applying our expertise in preventive medicine to climate change, we can influence global climate actions to address what many now consider our century’s greatest lifestyle disease for which we’re all at risk.

Focus on total health. Healthy populations and healthy communities depend on healthy environments. Greening hospitals is not about saving the planet. It is about being anchored in health because that’s the mission of hospitals and that’s where we have expertise and credibility. Hospitals have roles to play in supporting healthy communities beyond providing direct medical care.  They can influence environmental health through grantmaking to environmental organizations, purchasing locally, supporting active transportation, and more. Improving the health of communities includes improving the health of the environment.


Featured image credit: Nasa Earth Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons  

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