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Gas Emissions in the Healthcare Industry

By: Anna S.

The healthcare system is one of the largest institutions in the U.S., taking up 24% of government spending (Brookings Institution). This is because society depends on its hospitals and doctor’s offices for medical care and support, since many people value a quality healthcare system for themselves and others. This may suggest that the healthcare system is able to help more than hurt, but this is not entirely true. U.S. healthcare along with several other medical systems around the world experience the same issue: an immense amount of greenhouse gas emissions releasing radiant energy from their hospitals into the atmosphere, ultimately contributing to climate change. These gases are thought to be responsible for climate change because their radiant energy becomes trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere. The medical system contributes to numerous environmental issues such as chemical waste and wastewater, but above all, it is incredibly responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, due to the amount of emissions from the heating, electricity, and energy used in its facilities. This problem is relevant around the world and contributions to many environmental issues.

The contribution to the carbon footprint from 3 different medical facilities. A) Vancouver General Hospital, B) University of Minnesota Medical Center, and C) John Radcliffe Hospital. (Science Direct)

The U.S. healthcare system is responsible for a significant proportion of greenhouse gas emissions. According to Yale University, a study done by PLOS ONE states that the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the healthcare sector increased by 30% in the past decade. Furthermore, gas emissions are indirectly released by the healthcare system through producing electricity and supplies for hospitals. Northwestern’s Matthew Eckelman believes that “it’s a big contributor to our nation’s environmental impacts, commensurate with its economic impacts.” In addition to gas emissions, the U.S. healthcare system is also responsible for 12% of acidification, 10% smog formation, and 9% respiratory disease from particulate matter (World Health Organization). Ocean acidification and smog formation are environmental impacts that result from the carbon dioxide gas and nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere, which further emphasizes that the gasses hospitals release are detrimental. Particulate matter is a form of air pollution that can lead to health problems. This is interesting to consider because medicine is indirectly causing respiratory issues. Overall, healthcare requires an immense amount of technology, energy, and supplies that lead to a large amount of gas emissions and other negative outcomes.

Although the American healthcare system contributes to environmental destruction, these problems stem to other countries as well. The gas emissions from all healthcare facilities in the 37 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, plus China and India, collectively contribute to 4% of global emissions. In Australia, the carbon emissions of the healthcare system make up 7% of the country's gas emissions. In fact, the Australian Institute of Health Welfare (AIHW) found that there was gas emissions from all healthcare sectors from which they collected data. These statistics demonstrate that gas emissions truly are a global issue. The U.S. may be making efforts to limit gas emissions, but it is important that these efforts spread through the globe and increase the sustainability of the healthcare industry. This pollution problem can be seen around the world (in countries such as China and Australia) and many institutions strive to resolve this issue through environmental goals, carbon neutrality, and decarbonization.

A breakdown of the carbon emissions from different healthcare sectors in Australia. Most carbon emissions are a result of public hospitals. (Science Direct)

Despite significant carbon footprints, several U.S. hospitals are striving to improve the environmental impact of the healthcare system. For example, in December 2018, Harvard Medical School, a global leader in medical research, announced their extensive initiatives to decarbonize, as they are well aware these sustainable efforts are for the “sake of [their] patients and people around the world.” Cleveland Clinic also pledges to become carbon neutral by 2027. Already, this prominent medical organization has decreased their carbon emissions through “energy reduction and green building strategies.” Additionally, Columbia University Medical Center is offering Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certifications to hospitals who achieve “healthy, highly efficient, and cost-saving green buildings.” All in all, these initiatives are all steps in the right direction. Medicine is always changing and improving, but now an environmental perspective is finally being acknowledged. Now, efforts are being made to prevent the environment from being negatively impacted by improvements in the field. The main goal in the medical field has always been to help people, and there is no better way for hospitals to demonstrate this objective than to invest in the environmental state of the communities they serve. The well-being of people should not cause the destruction of the environment; initiatives need to be taken to care for people in a sustainable way.

In summary, the gas emissions produced by the healthcare system are a major issue in the U.S. and throughout the world due to their contribution to climate change and other environmental issues. However these negative impacts can be reduced. It is important for large institutions within medicine to set sustainable goals and stick to them, in order for steps in the right direction to occur. The U.S. National Center for Biotechnology Information emphasizes that a well-known measure that hospitals still must take is “to reduce energy use – for instance by taking actions on insulation, heating and lighting, by switching computers and monitors off when not in use….” Therefore, seemingly minute actions to use less energy can actually create a beneficial impact into effectively reducing gas emissions. It does not always take a big effort to make change, and hospitals must take this mindset into account when aiding communities.

Discussion Questions:

  • In what other ways can the U.S. healthcare system implement sustainable medical practices?

  • Should hospitals be required to meet sustainability goals? Why or why not?

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