Reduce health care’s carbon footprint to save our patients

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I would like to explore a typical American health care experience through a different lens: energy.

Upon entering a hospital, I would see bright lighting and hear the gentle hum from ventilation. If I were to get an MRI, this requires significant energy often supported by fossil fuels. For blood work, there would be medical waste generated from my stick. While grabbing a quick bite to eat in the hospital cafeteria, I may witness a pile of food leftovers being dumped into the garbage. These routine moments make up health care’s carbon footprint, lending to 655 metric tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere as of a 2011 report.

In medicine, we take an oath to do no harm. We are taught this from our first day of medical school, and the health care professionals I work with honor these words in their daily practice. Given the field’s reverence for the Hippocratic Oath, I was stunned to discover the medical industry directly contributes to the climate crisis, which undoubtedly harms human health. Up to 10 percent of the United States’ total greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) comes from the health care sector. In case that statistic is not staggering enough, U.S. health care is also the 7th largest producer of CO2 in the world. This unsustainable output continues to fuel well-documented health implications as a product of global warming.

Alongside the rising spread of infectious diseases — especially water-borne illnesses — elevated temperatures extend the transmission season and geographic range for vector-borne diseases like dengue, malaria, and Lyme disease. With global warming, the general population is more likely to experience heatstroke. Additionally, patients with a predisposition for heat stress are placed at a greater risk of developing this condition. This group includes individuals with chronic conditions, and those taking medications for certain mental illnesses and heart disease. Researchers predict that climate change’s impact on food security will lead to widespread malnutrition, affecting the most vulnerable groups in our population. Furthermore, the barriers to seeking health care become greater if clinics and hospitals are damaged through natural disasters or if they are overwhelmed by a greater volume of displaced residents.

Health care professionals are some of the staunchest advocates for human health, yet we belong to a system that is endangering our patients and our planet. How can we move forward?

To find effective solutions, it is imperative to analyze where our carbon emissions are stemming from. Outputs from the pharmaceutical industry originate from research, manufacturing and drug transport. Hospitals inevitably support such practices by providing these lifesaving but energy-expensive medications. Hospital systems have their own power expenditures and waste generation: single-use medical devices and waste anesthetic gases (unused air exhaled by patients) are just a few examples. Although constant lighting, ventilation and temperature regulation are necessary, they involve high energetic demands. There is a strong business case for reform. In a 2012 study conducted by The Commonwealth Fund, savings estimates were $15 billion over 10 years if U.S. hospitals adopted energy interventions such as lighting upgrades, hydronic heating controls, and solar film on windows. These savings could then be directed towards other opportunities that will improve patients’ health.

Fortunately, health care systems are making positive strides to address this issue. I am inspired by a list from Becker’s Hospital Review, which features 68 of the greenest hospitals last year. From purchasing renewable energy resources to increasing recycling efforts, each of them have dedicated time and money to become sustainable institutions.

We cannot count on legislators alone to pave the path for better climate change policies. Our roles and experiences as medical providers provide insight into the insidious ways that climate change affects our patients. If we empower one another with information, we will also intimately understand how this crisis alters future patients’ treatment options. Given our commitment to human health and our industry’s own involvement in GHG production, health care professionals have a shared responsibility to “green” the infrastructure of our clinics, hospitals and schools. We can also aspire to educate legislators on the need for environmentally-friendly policies. Practice Greenhealth, Physicians for Social Responsibility, The Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health and Health Care Without Harm, are just a handful of groups that offer toolkits and solutions to take action. With these partnerships, I believe we are uniquely positioned to be leaders in mitigating the climate crisis.

Aditi Gadre is a medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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