Health systems across the U.S. are implementing comprehensive plans to reduce carbon emissions, curb hospital waste and improve energy efficiency across their operations through multiyear projects impacting everything from the operating room to the cafeteria.
Some organizations, including the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, have signed a nonbinding pledge backed by the White House to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2030.
"Hospitals are in operation 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year," says Dr. Mike Boninger, chief medical sustainability officer at UPMC. "A simple medical procedure can generate a ton of waste. There are myriad opportunities where we can do better."
Boninger sees low-hanging fruit in the form of more efficient LED lightbulbs, reuse of certain medical instruments and improved air circulation in operating rooms. "It almost seems like there are endless possibilities to reduce the amount of energy used," he says.
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Where Health Systems Find ‘Quick Wins’ for Sustainability
North Carolina-based Novant Health is focused on reducing waste and curbing energy and water use, and continually evaluates the efficiency of the services it provides, says Matt Stiene, senior vice president of construction and facility services for the health system. Monitoring-based commissioning (the use of automated data analytics to continuously monitor system performance) and other building data are used to assess systems at each facility.
“Based on that information, retrofit projects are designed to optimize efficiencies relative to our sustainability goals,” Stiene says. “As we set our near- and long-term environmental sustainability goals, we have identified some quick wins.”
These include low-flow plumbing fixtures to reduce water consumption and waste stream audits to identify opportunities to increase recycling and reduce waste to landfills.
A simple medical procedure can generate a ton of waste. There are myriad opportunities where we can do better.”
Dr. Mike Boninger
Chief Medical Sustainability Officer, UPMC
Stony Brook University Hospital CEO and COO Carol Gomes says the hospital’s sustainability efforts began with a mercury-free initiative in the early 2000s. It has since partnered with sustainability-focused healthcare network Practice Greenhealth to determine focus areas and develop a comprehensive plan.
“Each year, we review the data we've collected over the previous year and identify opportunities for improvement, areas where we can strengthen our goals, whether that means using safer chemicals, environmentally preferable purchasing or greening in the OR,” Gomes says.
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Barbara Boyle, Stony Brook's director of healthcare safety and environmental health and safety in the division of enterprise risk management, says that early measures focused on daily efforts, such as reducing the use copier paper and sourcing local food providers for the cafeteria.
“It's a huge web of looking at the total impact of many decisions, not just the big capital projects,” Boyle says. “Those are very important, but sustainability also concerns the day-to-day business and the purchasing of everything we need to run the hospital.”
Percentage of health system carbon emissions that derive from hospital care
Source: commonwealthfund.org, “How the U.S. Health Care System Contributes to Climate Change,” April 19, 2022
At Pennsylvania-based WellSpan Health, a new medical tower will meet LEED Gold certification standards for sustainable construction, says Chief Administrative Officer Keith Noll. “It's an upfront investment to get the building to a higher standard, because we know the building is going to be in operation for many decades,” he says.
WellSpan Health is also collecting data from older buildings to determine where renovations must occur to improve energy efficiency.
“Just by doing the retrofitting, we should be able to hit the 2030 target, and as our new buildings come online, that's how we're going to get to net neutral by 2050,” Noll says.