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Hospitals and the environment: Pressure to do better


Health systems are getting pushed, from inside and outside their organizations, to reduce waste and emissions.

When it comes to climate change, we often think of cars jamming highways or factories emitting pollution.

But hospitals and health systems are gaining more attention for their impact on the environment.

Hospitals produce a lot of pollution. Federal officials say hospitals account for 8.5% of America’s carbon emissions. Hospitals also generate an enormous amount of waste, in part because they discard many items after one use. Each day, a hospital produces a ton of waste per every 100 beds.

Hospitals and health systems are doing more to reduce the amount of waste and pollution they generate. They’re looking at steps like reusable gowns, instead of gowns that are tossed after one use.

Some are looking at using less energy. Some hospitals are also switching the type of anesthesia they use to cut emissions. UCSF Health has moved away from using desflurane in recent years. Seattle Children’s and UPMC have also said they have chosen to drop desflurane, a common but highly potent anesthetic.

In January, The Joint Commission launched a new program to certify hospitals on sustainability. Jonathan Perlin, president and CEO of The Joint Commission, said it’s the rare occasion where clinicians were asking for a certification program.

As some hospitals are going green, they’re also saving green. The Providence health system says it has saved $11 million annually on its environmental efforts. The system hopes to eventually save up to $100 million annually. Healthcare leaders say that finding savings by reducing waste and energy costs frees up money for patient care.

The federal government is pushing hospitals to do better on the environment. Many hospitals have pledged to meet the Biden administration’s goals on reducing emissions. But hospitals are also getting pressure from inside their own organizations. Hospital boards and leaders are asking more questions about what their organizations are during to reduce their harm to the environment.

Hospital staff members are also telling their employers they need to do more to reduce their carbon footprint. Many clinicians are interested in climate change and say hospitals need to do better. After all, they point out the first principle of healthcare is: do no harm.

But hospitals have an opportunity, according to leaders of sustainability efforts.

Health systems are struggling with turnover, but some workers say the environment is a priority. Four out of five clinicians say hospitals should be engaged on climate change, according to the Commonwealth Fund.

Hospitals that do more to help the environment may have an easier time recruiting and retaining workers. They also can help out with worker engagement by recruiting workers to take part in sustainability programs.

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