By Kathy Gerwig, VP, Employee Safety, Health and Wellness and Environmental Stewardship Officer, Kaiser Permanente
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 care to individuals, their environmental footprint—pollution, waste production, unsustainable food services—can be harmful to community health.
A growing segment of health care leaders are addressing this glaring contradiction. They are embracing environmental stewardship as part of their commitment to improving the health of the communities they serve, so that hospitals can truly be places of healing.
In my new book, Greening Health Care: How Hospitals Can Heal the Planet, I examine the intersection of health care and environmental health, both in terms of traditional failures and the revolution underway to fix them. These environmental stewardship measures are penetrating many other sectors, and the story is much broader than just the health care industry. Businesses that supply medical products, design and build hospitals and clinics, produce food for patients and staff, and make electronic devices for clinical technology are being asked to join the effort. Hospitals are more than an important part of the community; their impact reaches across the globe.
Here are some of the ways in which the health care sector is greening itself:
- Energy and Climate: The health sector is a major energy hog and a large contributor of the greenhouse gas emissions that are the primary culprits behind global warming. Climate change is expected to increase the prevalence of a wide range of health risks for hundreds of millions of individuals throughout the world—today and long into the future. Innovative hospitals are building more resilient buildings to withstand superstorms and sea level rise. And they are investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency to reduce carbon emissions.
- Food: Hospitals are challenging the dominant food system that produces high-fat, high-sugar, nutrient-poor, processed food that contributes to chronic diseases and obesity. Food packaging can contain chemicals or create waste that is unhealthy. The existing food system accounts for about a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. Some hospitals are broadening the definition of “healthy food” to include food that is grown and produced sustainably. These hospitals are serving locally grown food that is free of added hormones or antibiotics, and grown without toxic pesticides or fossil-fuel-based fertilizers.
- Purchasing: The U.S. health care system spends more than $200 billion a year on supplies. That’s a lot of purchasing power. Environmentally preferable purchasing in health care means asking suppliers for products that are easily recyclable or reusable, and products that do not contain potentially harmful chemicals. Most purchasing goes through a handful of group purchasing organizations, and most of them are now including environmental considerations such as energy consumption, waste generation, and toxic ingredients in their product selections.
- Safer Chemicals: The health care sector is one of the biggest purchasers of a variety of chemically laden products, such as exam gloves, plastic tubing, cleaning products, and disinfectants. As more hospitals develop comprehensive chemicals policies, we are beginning to see fundamental changes in the design, manufacture, use, transparency, regulation, and disposal of chemicals—all driving toward improved human and ecosystem health.
- Waste: American hospitals produce more than 2 million tons of waste annually. Much of that can be better segregated, recycled, or reused. Buying products that can be reprocessed saves hospitals millions of dollars a year while reducing waste and environmental impact.
“Health care is one of the few industries that has the economic clout, the scientific expertise, the public credibility, and—perhaps most important—the mission to change practices that may cause harm, and to do that on a national, economy-wide scale,” said Gary Cohen, president and cofounder of Health Care Without Harm, a nongovernmental organization that has partnered with Kaiser Permanente for many years.
Generating about 18 percent of all U.S. economic output, health care is capable of creating and leading a national—and even global—transformation that could incorporate environmental sustainability in every dimension of the sector’s economic activity for the health and well-being of the world’s people.
The greening of health care is a lesson of hope. And the future holds a promise of healing that extends far beyond the system of health care.