Earth Day and healthcare: How the industry can help the environment

Hospitals are under more pressure to reduce emissions and make better choices in the supply chain. Gary Cohen, president of Health Care Without Harm, recently outlined ways health systems can make changes.

As Earth Day draws attention to climate change and sustainability, healthcare organizations have received growing criticism over their environmental impact.

Critics say hospitals and health systems aren’t doing enough to curb emissions. Last month, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., sent a letter to leading hospital systems and asked them to outline what they are doing to reduce emissions. He sent an expanded request for information April 1 to the American Hospital Association and other health advocacy groups.

Gary Cohen, president of Health Care Without Harm, an advocacy group pushing health systems to be more environmentally responsible, spoke about ways hospitals can cut pollutants and address the climate crisis. He spoke in a forum with the Hastings Center on April 19.

“What hope do we have to create the conditions for health, healthy communities, a healthy planet, if the very sector that is supposed to live by this ethical frame of do no harm is itself a massive polluter?” Cohen asked.

“Healthcare, in the United States, is responsible for almost 9% of the greenhouse gas emissions of this country,” Cohen said.

And the U.S. healthcare industry accounts for about 25% of all global health industry emissions. "Our culpability, our accountability, is massive," Cohen said.

“If we can transform healthcare to kick its addiction to fossil fuels, kick its addiction to toxic chemicals, its addiction to industrial agriculture, we can model a much broader transformation that we need in our civilization and through that process, we can improve everybody's health,” he said.

Here are some of Cohen’s top recommendations for healthcare organizations, which he shared during the forum.

Use purchasing power

The healthcare industry’s purchasing power can drive changes in markets, Cohen said.

“Healthcare has an enormous amount of money, influence, power in our society, and we need to leverage it for a much broader set of societal values,” he said.

The healthcare industry can use its purchasing power to invest in renewable energy for its facilities and also help invest in renewable energy for communities. The industry can also “invest in food systems that are more sustainable, more racially diverse for patients and employees and visitors,” Cohen said. Health systems can also team with schools, universities and other institutional buyers, he said.

Cohen argued the healthcare industry can be “a partner in helping to detoxify people's housing. Because we know the people that show up at the emergency room again and again with kids with asthma, a lot of stuff is happening in their homes.”

If we can actually go upstream and invest in those upstream triggers, we can improve people's homes, we can reduce the incidence of asthma and respiratory disease, we can save money,” he said.

Sustainable supplies

Hospitals can go a long way toward reducing pollutants by purchasing more sustainable supplies, Cohen said.

“What we discovered in our analysis around healthcare's carbon footprint is over 70% of it is in the supply chain and their investments,” Cohen said. “It's in the stuff they buy and the companies they invest in.

“So they have this incredible opportunity If we can aggregate the power of many, many different healthcare systems to move away from toxic plastics, to move toward more plant-based diets in what we serve our patients, to have more energy efficient MRIs,” he said.

Cohen pointed to the National Health Service in Britain, which has committed to zero emissions by 2045. “They're saying to their suppliers, if you don't match our commitment to decarbonize, we're going to find other suppliers that do so,” he said. “It's leveraging the supply chain to match the bold goals and commitments that healthcare is making.”

Choose cleaner energy

Health systems can choose cleaner sources or energy, Cohen said.

“Much of healthcare is fueled by fossil fuels,” he said. “That can be transformed so that healthcare can actually be fueled by wind and solar.”

The Gundersen Healthy System moved away from coal and invested in wind and solar energy, among other initiatives. Gundersen built two wind farms that also provide power for thousands of residents. The system has installed solar panels on its buildings.

In addition, Gundersen shifted to a biomass boiler, which uses clean organic wood fuel sources. The biomass boiler isn’t just greener but Gundersen says it’s saving the system $500,000 annually.

Advocate Health, a nonprofit health system in Illinois, has committed to moving to 100% renewable electricity by 2030.

Better food choices

Health systems can choose to buy food from local farmers, subsequently providing fresher, better food for their patients and staff. Cohen said his group has worked with hospitals in California who are shifting to sourcing more food from area farms.

Kaiser Permanente has set a goal of buying all of its food either from local farms or farms that use sustainable practices by 2025. Kaiser also operates dozens of seasonal food stands and seasonal markets around the country. As of 2019, Kaiser said 43% of its food was purchased by local farms or farms committed to using sustainable practices.

Seize momentum

There is growing acknowledgment that the healthcare industry must do less damage to the environment, Cohen said.

At the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, more than 40 countries vowed to build climate resistant healthcare systems, agreeing to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

A dozen countries, including the United States, pledged to eliminate carbon emissions in their healthcare systems by 2050.

Last fall, the National Academy of Medicine launched a collaborative effort aimed at “decarbonizing” the U.S. healthcare sector. Assistant U.S. Health Secretary Rachel Levine has called on the health sector to reduce emissions.

“The momentum is so huge now to do this, to move down this path to get healthcare to model this transition away from fossil fuels,” Cohen said. “It's a very, very potent moment in our country and around the world.”