The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) delivered some sobering news in April: If the world continues at its current pace, we will reach a devastating level of global warming more rapidly than originally thought. Meeting the Paris Agreement goal of limiting future warming to 1.5 degrees will require the world to use 95% less coal, 60% less oil, and 45% less gas by 2050.
The IPCC report continues to state that the phasing out of fossil fuels must be met with a six-fold increase in alternative energy spending by 2030, to even come close to meeting the Paris Agreement goal.
Healthcare providers, health IT companies, and investors need to be keenly aware of the double-edged sword that greenhouse gases represent in healthcare.
The U.S. healthcare industry, including hospitals, health systems, pharmaceutical companies, and medical device companies, is responsible for 8.5% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. – New England Journal of Medicine
In turn, these emissions impact the health of the global community. According to Practice Greenhealth’s Healthcare Energy Impact Calculator, a typical 200-bed hospital that uses coal-powered energy is responsible for $107,000 a year in direct healthcare costs associated with asthma attacks, chronic bronchitis, and other health problems. Additionally, The World Health Organization estimates that adverse effects from climate change on human health will reach $2-4 billion annually by 2030.
Industry Leaders Are Making a Difference
There is some progress being made. Mass General Brigham, which sees 1.5 million patients annually across 16 facilities, is well on its way to achieving carbon neutrality by 2025. The hospital generated only 1.83 kilograms of CO2 per square foot in 2019, while the average of all other Boston healthcare facilities was 15.9 kilograms of CO2 per square foot.(1)
“It is essential that we recognize and act on what has been highlighted by the pandemic – the urgent need for long-term, equitable, sustainable solutions to expand access to care, providing more care to our patients in lower cost settings, closer to and inside their homes empowered by digital health innovation.” — Anne Klibanski, MD, President and CEO of Mass General Brigham
In addition to reducing environmental risks, there are proven cases that demonstrate how sustainability initiatives translate into savings for healthcare organizations. Practice Greenhealth collected extensive sustainability data from 327 hospitals that were building environmental stewardship into their mission. The hospitals saved a combined $68 million from sustainability initiatives in 2018, while reducing more than 309 million kBtus of energy, diverting 146,750 tons of waste from the landfill, and avoiding 182,370 metric tons of carbon emissions through mitigation projects.
However, much work remains. Nearly 30% of Practice Greenhealth’s survey respondents have yet to implement a facility policy or commit to LEED (or another green building certification organization) design standards for all new buildings and/or major renovations. In addition, only 43% of hospitals generate or purchase renewable energy as a portion of their energy portfolio.
Here are some ways healthcare organizations can ramp up their sustainability programs.
Drive Telehealth Policies and Invest in Digital Technologies
By 2025, Gartner predicts that 40% of healthcare providers will shift one-fifth of their hospital beds to the patient’s home through digitally enabled hospital-at-home services, improving the patient experience and outcomes while also decreasing the hospitals’ carbon footprint and saving on electricity and other infrastructure costs.
There is a direct link between telehealth and reduced carbon emissions. Chicago-based CommonSpirit Health claims its virtual visits reduced greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to planting over 250,000 trees and removing more than 3,000 cars from roadways for an entire year. The company tracked 1.5 million virtual visits in 2020 and 2021 to more than 1,400 locations. Those visits saved 37 million miles for a savings of $3.5 million. In terms of time spent in transit and in a waiting room or exam room, the company estimates that patients saved 923,276 hours through virtual visits.
Switch to Electric Fleets
Converting fossil-fuel transportation—like security vehicles, shuttle buses, and ambulances—to electric and other measures dramatically reduces carbon emissions. Homerton Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, an integrated care trust which provides hospital and community health services in London and surrounding communities, is converting its entire fleet of ambulances used for non-emergency patient transport services to electric. In addition, healthcare organizations can consider electric solutions to transport laundry, meals and food, beds, waste, medicines, and temperature-controlled test tubes, as well as medical equipment and maintenance.
Emphasize Sustainable Sourcing
The healthcare industry is one of the largest consumers of food in the world. That combined purchasing power carries an enormous potential to support local food sources, which promotes sustainability by reducing transportation and packaging costs associated with shipping.
New Jersey’s Hackensack Meridian Health System serves meat, poultry and seafood raised without the use of antibiotics. And St. Luke’s University Health Network in Pennsylvania is building on-site farms to supply some of its menu items. While many providers don’t have the space to create something like this, they can consider procurement programs that connect hospitals to local farmers and producers. For example, Farm to Institution New York State (FINYS) is encouraging hospital systems to spend 25% of their food budget on locally grown produce. Buying locally, as opposed to from a national distributor, reduces carbon footprint by reducing the distance items are shipped. It also supports the local economy and provides patients with healthier food.
Partner With the Entire Ecosystem
Ultimately, reaching aggressive sustainability goals will require driving change beyond the four walls of the enterprise and partnering with the entire ecosystem. Hospitals should prioritize partners with proven sustainability programs that align with their goals. They should study the annual reports and sustainability mission of potential partners and build these issues into future contracts. In addition, they should consider partnering with competitors to receive better buying power, for example. This can also drive innovation. Meeting the climate change challenge will require out-of-the-box thinking, and collective action with untypical partners—including competitors.