Climate impact: Healthcare is a top producer of greenhouse gases. Can it also be part of the solution?

Pediatric Hospital
If it were its own country, healthcare would rank 13th in the world for greenhouse gas emissions—more than the United Kingdom, researchers say. But there are steps healthcare organizations can take to reduce their carbon footprints. (NYU Langone)
The U.S. healthcare sector is responsible for nearly 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions and hospitals make up more than one-third of those emissions, according to a study by researchers at Northeastern University and Yale.

If it were its own country, healthcare would rank 13th in the world for greenhouse gas emissions—more than the United Kingdom, the researchers said. 

“Healthcare has been somewhat late to the game in addressing climate change, and they should be leaders,” Jessica Wolff, U.S. director of climate and health at Health Care Without Harm and Practice Greenhealth. Health Care Without Harm is an international coalition that works to help the healthcare sector reduce its environmental footprint. 

Hospitals, given their 24/7 operations, consume a lot of energy due to lighting, sophisticated heating, cooling and ventilation systems, computing and other services that require electricity. Supply chain—medical equipment, pharmaceuticals, and business services—is the biggest contributor to carbon emissions, according to a report from the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS), one of the few health systems to assess its own carbon footprint.

Supply chain accounts for 57% of its emissions. Core emissions, including heating, fuel, and electricity, account for about a quarter of emissions.

NHS reports that as a result of concerted sustainability initiatives, it has dropped its carbon emissions by 18.5% since 2007.

“We’re moving in the right direction, but we’re not moving quite fast enough,” Wolff said.

Wolff gives credit to leading organizations that make up the Health Care Climate Council—organizations like Kaiser Permanente, Cleveland Clinic and Partners Healthcare—that have committed to mitigating their environmental impact as well as preparing for the impacts of climate change by building resilient hospitals.

Many of these organizations are focused on reducing energy usage for data centers and shifting to renewable forms of energy.

What they can do 

  • Green energy to power data centers: Boston Medical Center partnered with its third-party data center vendor, Iron Mountain, to use 100% renewable energy to power its off-site data center—the first major hospital to take that step. BMC, also a member of the Health Care Climate Council, has focused on IT sustainability initiatives that are also cost-effective, Arthur Harvey, vice president and chief information officer at Boston Medical Center, said.

“The healthcare industry has a set of challenges. Our mission is to treat patients. So if it’s going to cost a half-million dollars to put in a windmill for green electricity, that’s money that could go into hiring nurses or building a clinic in a disadvantaged area,” Harvey told FierceHealthcare. “In reality, when you look at sustainability and energy efficiency from an IT perspective, it’s not really any home runs; it’s smaller projects and you just keep poking at it.” 

  • Changes to anesthetic gases: A Providence St. Joseph Health (PSJH) anesthesiologist working at one of Providence’s Portland, Oregon, hospitals compared two different anesthetic gases used in the operating room and discovered that one had a significant negative environmental impact and a higher cost.

According to a NHS report, anesthetic gases account for 5% of the carbon footprint of acute hospital organizations.

That anesthesiologist worked with regional leadership to change how they purchase and use anesthetic gas in the OR. By making that change, the hospitals in that region reduced emissions related to anesthetic gas by 80% and achieved a 60% cost reduction. That’s the equivalent of taking 4.5 million Hummer miles off the road, Ali Santore, PSJH’s group vice president of government affairs, told FierceHealthcare.

It’s an example of how sustainability best practices at the Renton, Washington-based health system come from the top down and the bottom up.

“It can be a triple bottom line effect: we’re looking for an environmental win, a win for the community, and also a financial win," Richard Beam, chief of environmental stewardship, said. "If it hits on all three, we’re going to do it. The culture at Providence is one that embraces environmentalism."

  • Invest in alternate forms of power: Partners HealthCare has taken steps to reduce its energy consumption and environmental footprint while making its facilities more resilient to climate-driven events like flooding and sea-level rise. By investing in alternative forms of energy, such as solar, hydroelectric and wind farms, Partners has reduced electricity use by 25%, according to a report from Health Care Without Harm. These efforts delivered an 80% reduction in their electricity’s greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Energy-efficient building design: Inspira Health, a regional healthcare network in southern New Jersey, invested significant resources in the design of its newest healthcare facility, Inspira Medical Center Mullica Hill, with a focus on energy conservation and sustainability.

Inspira executives have set a goal to have the new hospital, set to open in November, be 25% more energy-efficient than most competing hospitals in the region, making it one of the most energy-efficient facilities in the region.

Inspira invested $5 million in a 1.1 megawatt combined heat and power plant to produce both electricity and thermal energy on-site for the new hospital. "The facility was built with resiliency in mind so we will have the capability to support ourselves in the event that we lose power off the grid, like what happened with Superstorm Sandy," Brandon Bardowsky, vice president of facilities, design and construction at Inspira Health, said.

When Superstorm Sandy struck in October 2012, the powerful storm surge caused $50 billion in property damage, mostly in New Jersey and New York. The healthcare system was rocked by Sandy. At the time of the storm, many individuals were in the regions’ hospitals; more than 6,400 patients were evacuated, and six hospitals and 26 residential care facilities in New York City alone were closed. The storm was also responsible for 72 deaths.

The combined heat and power plant will protect the hospital during an emergency and can still run to provide 95%-100% of operating power during an outage, Bardowsky said.

"We looked at it from the perspective that you need to plan for the worst, because that is when we as a healthcare organization will come into play and that's when our community needs us," Inspira Health President and CEO John DiAngelo said.

The new hospital project qualified for a rebate as part of a grant program under New Jersey's Clean Energy program. Inspira Health anticipates achieving $1 million a year in energy savings and a five-year return on investment on the power plant.

The facility design also includes a three-acre field of solar panels to provide 1.5 megawatts of power production on-site. Within 30 years, the operating solar panels will save 42,000 tons of CO2, which is equivalent to the emissions from 93 million miles driven by a passenger car or 88,000 barrels of oil.

Chart contributed by Data Editor Eli Richman.

Climate impact: Healthcare is a top producer of greenhouse gases. Can it also be part of the solution?

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